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Dr. Johnson’s Penance
“Once, indeed, I was disobedient. I refused to attend my father to Uttoxeter Market. Pride was the source of this refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time, bareheaded, in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.” (Dr. Johnson’s conversation with “Mr. Henry White, a young clergyman” in Lichfield, in 1784)—Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
A COUNTRY road on market-day (Is what I see arise), Crowded with farmers, ruddy men, Muffled up to the eyes; For cold and bitter rain beats fast From the gray cheerless skies. Past carts with white tilts flagging wet, Past knots of wrangling hinds, A burly man with deep-lined face, Chafed by the churlish winds, Strides on like dreary packman who His galling burden binds. He wears no ruffles round his wrists, His wig is scorched and worn; His slouching coat flaps loose and long,— Its buttons but of horn; The little lace upon its cuffs Is frayed and soiled and torn. It is a day of sullen cloud, Of shrinking leaf and flower,— A day the sun to shine or warm Has neither wish nor power; So fitful falls the wavering veil Of the cold bitter shower. The blackbirds from the hedges break In chattering dismay, Like wicked thoughts in sinners’ minds When they kneel down to pray; He sees them not, for darkness deep Bars out for him the day. Before him black and open graves Seem yawning in the way; The sun, a mere vast globe of jet, Bodes God’s great wrath alway; He hears strange voices on his track That fill him with dismay. The black rooks o’er the fallows whirl Like demons in the sky, Watching to do some hurt to man, But for the sleepless eye Of God, that, whether day or night, Still baffles them from high. The miller’s wagon, dripping flour, Toils on, close covered in; The pedler, spite of cloak and pack, Is drenched unto the skin; The road to Wroxeter is thronged With cattle crowding in. With butting heads against the wind The farmers canter on (Sure corn that morning has gone down, They look so woe-begone); Till now shone out the steeple vane The sun has flashed upon. ’Tween strings of horses dripping wet The burly man strides fast; On market stalls and crowded pens No eager look he cast; He thought not of the wrangling fair, But of a day long past. He comes to where the market cross Stands towering o’er the stalls, Where on the awnings, brown and soaked, The rain unceasing falls; Where loud the vagrant auctioneer With noisy clamor bawls. He heeds not yonder rocking swings That laughing rustics fill, But gazes on one stall where sits A stripling, quiet and still, Selling his books, although the rain Falls ceaselessly and chill. There, in the well-remembered place, He stands, head low and bare, Heedless of all the scoffing crowd Who jostle round and stare, Crying, “Why, lads, here ’s preacher man Come to this April Fair.” “Here ’s th’ April Fool!” a farmer cries, Holding his swollen side; Another clacks his whip, a third Begins to rail and chide, While salesmen cried their prices out And with each other vied. Yet when he silent stood, nor moved For one long hour at least, The marketwomen leering said, “This is some crazy priest Doing his penance,—pelt him, boys! Pump on the Popish beast!” Some counting money turned to sneer; One with raised hammer there Kept it still poised, to see the man; The buyers paused to stare; The farmer had to hold his dog, Longing to bite and tear. As the old clock beats out the time The stranger strides away, Past deafening groups of flocks and carts And many a drunken fray; The sin of fifty years’ agone That penance purged away. Call it not superstition, friends, Or foolish, weak regret; He was a great good man whose eyes With tears that day were wet; ’T was a brave act to crush his pride,— Worthy of memory yet.
George Walter Thornbury's other poems:
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