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Samuel Johnson: Penance

Ray Givans


Rain penetrates his waistcoat, shirt, pantaloons,
chills flesh and bone. Wig weighs heavy
as a sopping mop head. Uttoxeter. Utterly drenched.
 Johnson seems oblivious, as if in a laudanum-
induced state. Only by face tics
and involuntary body shudders, might onlookers
deduce that red blood courses through this mammoth.

Intent on atoning for sin that darkens his soul,  
for two hours, more, Samuel stands on the spot
where fifty years ago he refused to man
his father's stall, on market day.
Fingers entwine a hawthorn stick,
eyes shut to women bustling past,
black-veined umbrellas and cloth-covered baskets
bumping against his saturated overcoat.
He seems unperturbed as a goose's neck flares,
honks and spits at his silver-buckled shoes…  

Sun illuminates Brighthelmston beach.
Tetty, reunited, clutches my arm,
parasol shading from start-of-summer sun,
as her white gown brushes sand and pebbles.
Out of the cold sea my father's body rises, renewed,
benign as when that day, at shaded pool
and birdsong at Stowe Mill, he taught me to swim.
From our brows melancholic creases are wiped away.

Ray Givans

Tetty = Samuel Johnson's wife, Elizabeth