Dr. Johnson's Penance

George Walter Thornbury

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.