Saturday, June 07, 2014

`I Hope the Penance was Expiatory'

Two men of Johnsonian proportions, Les Murray and the Good Doctor himself, meet in Murray’s “The Lich and the Blood” (Conscious and Verbal, Duffy & Snellgrove, 1999; not in Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001): “Peace to the pleasant city of Lichfield / Cradle of Dr Johnson the word-naturalist / too erudite ever to be slim.” Johnson was born in the West Midlands town in 1709. Murray, in the poem, refers to “this immense net / under haulage at three sky points,” referring to the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral. Murray goes on to meld multiple layers of history and a bit of popular etymology. Folklore says a thousand Christians were martyred in Lichfield around 300 A.D., and that the city’s name means “field of the dead.” Lich, “body,” is rooted in Old English and shows up in Beowulf and Piers Plowman. Across the next several centuries it mutated into opposing meanings -- the living body (or trunk, or torso, minus the limbs) and a corpse, but the derivation is more colorful than correct. 

Etymologists say the origins of the town’s name are more mundane. About two miles south of Lichfield in Staffordshire is the village of Wall, built on the site of the Roman settlement Letocetum, founded around 50 A.D. The name was a Latinized form of a Common Brittonic place-name meaning “Greywood.” Scholars speculate the color referred to ash and elm, trees common to the area. The name passed into Old English as lyccid and combined with feld (field or open country). Murray writes: 

“Lich, a corpse. How many lich
had lain in what field there when?
Lich in a field suggest battle,
knee-flexed massacre. Not only England
has lich on the conscience of its ground.” 

Next, Murray moves forward to 1651, when George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends and newly freed from prison, visits Lichfield and has a vision. As recalled in Fox’s journal: 

“Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter; and the Word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the Word of the Lord came to me again, saying, `Cry, Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, `Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ It being market-day, I went into the market-place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, `Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood.” 

Murray glosses Fox’s account: “It wasn’t Civil War blood, but ghostly / vision blood, that doesn’t stain its course.” The poet adds: “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!” Fox’s declaration in the streets of Lichfield recalls a similar but quieter and more somber act performed by Johnson in 1777 when he was sixty-eight years old. His father, Michael Johnson, had been a bookseller in Lichfield. As a boy, Johnson once refused to look after the stall his father kept in nearby Uttoxeter. Half a century later, as an act of penance, he returned to the village. Boswell reports him saying: 

“Pride was the source of that 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.” 

A panel on the side of the Johnson monument in Uttoxeter commemorates what has come to be known as “Johnson’s Penance.” Murray’s poem concludes: 

“Joy to George now fully in that world
and to us, who are all going there,
unconscious or awake. Joy and never scorn
to those who don’t yet see the lich or
the slim blood that clicks off like a graphic.
Joy to the solid city of Lichfield.”

Note the repetition of "slim."  

No comments: