An Extraordinary Journey: Richard Jefferies and the month of February

Rebecca Welshman


Jefferies in 1872

In February 1871 when he was 22 years old, Richard Jefferies wrote a letter to his Aunt Ellen Harrild in which he described the difficulties he was experiencing in trying to forge a career as an author. The letter, paraphrased by Walter Besant, explained that he had been trying to earn a living by writing and to find work as a reporter. He found London to be overrun with reporters, and the two Swindon papers close to home were fully staffed. He had tried to sell his gun, had drafted two novels and written a hundred pages of another. Interestingly, from this point on February became a month of note for Jefferies, with each year bringing significant  developments in his life.

In February 1872 Jefferies began a second phase of work for the Wiltshire and Gloucester Standard, having previously been a reporter for the paper for a while in 1869. On the 9 March he published a letter in the paper about agricultural labour. This letter anticipated his letters on the Wiltshire Labourer in The Times in November 1872 which brought him nationwide attention and acclaim.

In February 1873 he wrote to Bentley, the publisher, to offer ‘Only a Girl’ – a novel that he described as follows: “the leading idea is the delineation of the character of a girl entirely unconventional and determined to follow the impulse of her own nature. The scenery is laid in Wiltshire, and I have introduced some of the social legends of that county to give it a county interest.” Following the success of the Wiltshire Labourer letters, he also writes that “I am not altogether unknown in a literary sense: my letters in the Times on the “Wiltshire Labourer” made some noise at the time, and have been quoted continually since.” The manuscript of Only a Girl has never been traced and we know very little about it.

In February 1874 Jefferies sends what will become his first published novel to Tinsleys. A reader’s report for the novel described it as “a remarkable and original book. It is unlike almost all novels ever written, – studies of character and incident without dialogue. The more intellectual few will admire it, but it is not likely to become popular.” Jefferies also wrote “to write a tale is to me as easy as to write a letter, and I do not see why I should not issue two a year for the next twelve or fifteen years. I can hardly see the possible loss from a novel.” His novels, however, were not as successful as he had hoped, despite going on to publish Restless Human Hearts and World’s End in the same decade. Restless Human Hearts was published by Tinsley in February 1875.

February 1876 saw another novel submitted to Bentley called ‘In Summer Time’. Although rejected at the time, it is likely that this manuscript evolved or was used in some way in the preparation of The Dewy Morn, which was published in 1884. In February 1876 Jefferies also published the pamphlet ‘Suez-Cide! or, How Miss Britannia Bought a Dirty Puddle and Lost her Sugar Plums’, with J. Snow and Co.’ This satire was unlike anything he had written before, and it became so collectible that it was forged. The forged edition itself is now so rare that it is worth around £450. The work was an allegory of Benjamin Disraeli’s purchase of Suez Canal shares.


In February 1877 Jefferies made some notebook entries for what would become ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, concerning blackthorn in bloom in Surrey, and a reference to Selborne. These notes are of particular significance because they suggest Jefferies’ early familiarity with the work of Gilbert White (see Matthews and Trietel, ‘The Forward Life of Richard Jefferies, p. 84). White (1720-1793) was a pioneering naturalist and one of the founders of the English nature writing tradition. His best known book is  ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’.

On 1st February 1878 a letter arrived from Jefferies at the offices of Smith, Elder, and Co, accepting a proposal from them. For the first time Jefferies has been approached by a publisher to produce a work. Smith and Elder had noticed Jefferies’ articles in the Pall Mall Gazette titled ‘The Gamekeeper at Home’, and asked him if they might publish them in book form. It was a major breakthrough for the young Jefferies, who at age 29, with a wife and child to support, was looking for a stepping stone into the commercial world of publishing.


The Gamekeeper at Home, first edition

The first half of February 1879 (1-15th) saw Smith and Elder publish Jefferies’ second collection of natural history and countryside articles, which appeared first in the Pall Mall Gazette, and which we know today as ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’. On 6 February Smith and Elder paid Jefferies £200 (double the amount initially offered by them in December 1878), which as Matthews and Trietel point out, suggests that Jefferies had successfully negotiated better terms. On 11 February Jefferies dated a signed presentation copy of the book for his mother, Elizabeth. February 1880 was no less eventful, with Jefferies securing an agreement with Cassells publishing firm for his book Wood Magic: a Fable, the first copy of which he inscribed to his eldest son, Harold. Today this book features in the many activities for children that take place at Jefferies’ birthplace – the Richard Jefferies Museum.


A 1920s edition of Wood Magic

On 1 February 1882 Jefferies made a unique manuscript note that can be seen at the British Library. On a single leaf of paper he wrote the date, and ‘New Thought. Beauty’. Something significant was happening for Jefferies at this time – a shift in thought, a sense of getting closer to what really mattered to him. For year he had been trying to write his spiritual work, The Story of My Heart, and he refers to early attempts having been destroyed. In the summer of 1882 the Jefferies family moved to Brighton, where the expanses of the South Downs and the sparkling sea were to draw forth from Jefferies some of his finest work, and most importantly, the final version of The Story of My Heart. The February note, although so brief, suggests that he was beginning to clearly articulate the ‘one thought’ that he said went winding through his days, like a meandering brook through a meadow – the one hope that he could crystallise new spiritual ideas and share them with the world. As he wrote that year in ‘Out of Doors in February’, published in Good Words, ‘The murmur of the poets is indeed louder in February than in the more pleasant days of summer, for then the growth of aquatic grasses checks the flow and stills it, whilst in February, every stone, or flint, or lump of chalk divides the current and causes a vibration.’ He sees that ‘the lark and the light are one, and wherever he glides over the wet furrows the glint of the sun goes with him.’ The lark becomes ‘a sign of hope’.


Wood engraving of a Skylark by Peter Brown

As his career began to flourish, and he became increasingly well known, a parallel development was taking place that was to largely rob him of the chance to enjoy his success, and would inevitably shorten his life. Jefferies’ illness, which until now had not seriously impaired his life, began to take hold. In February 1883 he describes being ‘seized with a mysterious wasting disease, accompanied by much pain. I gradually wasted away to mere bones. By degrees this pain increased till it became almost insupportable.’ This happened two months after having a complicated operation for fistula, which had cost him ‘a large share’ of his savings. The doctors could do nothing, he wrote, so he sought London doctors, who for more than two years gave him various prescriptions, but nothing could relieve the ‘maddening’ pain. Hugoe Matthews writes that later medical knowledge would have classed these symptoms as low-grade tuberculous peritonitis, but to doctors of the time it would have seemed a mysterious disease without any apparent cure.

Despite all this, Jefferies secured a further book contract in February 1883, this time with Chatto and Windus, for Nature near London. In the February of 1884 Jefferies made a note of an address of a studio in Charlotte Street, London, which marked the beginning of one of the most important friendships of his life. The studio belonged to the artist J.W. North, one of the Idyllists who specialized in illustration, watercolour, and oils. Steve Milton, in his article on North, writes that North and Jefferies were introduce to one another by Joseph Comyns Carr in 1883. It is no surprise that the two men found a meaningful connection, for like Jefferies, North ‘always worked direct from nature in the open air’.  As Milton explains:

“‘In many of his best works, figures although present are generally subordinate or incidental to the scene – the focus is nature. The Idyll that North seeks to reveal seems to be about inner revelation or rapture – human spirit and emotion defined within a natural context. Like Jefferies, there is an element of mysticism in North’s work. In Jefferies’ nature writing, time seems irrelevant and deeper truths are hinted at but not completely revealed – an idyllic state of oneness with nature.”

‘Spring’ in watercolour, by J.W. North. Metropolitan Museum


‘An Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Manor in Somerset, 1865, by J.W. North

No extant letters from Jefferies to North are known, but we do know that after Jefferies’ death in August 1887, his wife and children went to stay with North in Somerset. North took care of them, helped Jessie with the process of securing a civil  list pension, and instigated a memorial fund for Jefferies. North wrote a moving account of the day he rushed to Jefferies’ bedside at Goring, but on arriving found that his friend had already passed away.

“…I went yesterday, expecting to once more speak with him. I found him lying dead, twelve hours dead. I saw him with Mrs. Jefferies and their little Phyllis. A pitiful sight to see them kiss the poor cold face! God help them! “When I find a new flower in the garden I cannot show it to papa now.  Mamma! Mamma! I hope Tommy Burrell won’t tell everybody that I have got no papa now.” The poor wife seemed to feel the change which death had brought upon the dear loved face almost more than all the rest. “Oh! How he is changed! A few hours back he was himself. How can I bear it? But they tell me he will soon again look better.” When I tried to dissuade her from looking upon him she said: “I must – I must; until he is taken away I must see him, and I must kiss him each time. My Phyllis, you will never see your dear papa without kissing him?” “No, no.” said the little one, and she had no fear in the presence of death. …

I asked Mrs. Jefferies if he had made a will. She said: “No: surely it would have been useless; we have nothing.  A woman singly, strong as I am could rough it; but if something can be done for the children I shall be thankful.”

north portrait

John William North

On 8 February 1886 the ailing Jefferies wrote to his mother from his address in Crowborough ‘The Downs’:

“My dear Mother, I have wanted for a long time to write to you but I am so fearfully weak I can with difficulty sit & the torture I go through every day & often all night long is indescribable, my stomach and bowels seem all wasted away & my back is as it were broken, nothing will give any relief. It starves me – it is downright starvation, eat what I will it is still empty. There is something wrong inside which no one can find out. The Doctor here says he has no idea what is the matter & has given me up sometime. I am now trying to get a physician down from London but the expense is very great. The cold here is intense & does so much harm but cold is not the cause…You must not be surprised that Jessie has not written, she has so much to do waiting on me all day for I cannot do the smallest thing for myself. So you must not suppose it is because we do not think of you. Phyllis has grown such a big girl & is very busy and happy, she knows her letters now. Toby is all go & rush like a wild March wind. He plays hare and hounds right through the forest here, sometimes they go for miles and rather alarm me as I cannot get out to see what he is doing. I have not been out of doors now for months. He often talks of his grandfather & wants to see him. I hope we shall see you both in the warmer weather. Phyllis says I am to tell you something about her, she says she can do some sewing now. Toby gets on capital with his drawing at the studio & I think will make a first rate draughtsman if he will but work. He has taught himself several airs on the piano entirely by ear & sings very nicely having a good voice. I very much hope that you & the governor will come and see us in the warmer weather. This place is beautiful in summer. Now it is a howling wilderness. I have managed to write a letter somehow but it causes me much distress & pain to do anything. With much love to yourself & the governor, always your affectionate son Richard.”

j's last days Goring031

Jefferies’ Last Days at Goring, dictating his work to his wife, Jessie

By February 1887 Jefferies knew he was dying. He describes himself in a letter to C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, as ‘a perfect invalid’, and seems hopeful:  “I am in hope, too, that as the warmth comes on the sea will help me more.” Yet by 14 February his notebook entries are imbued with despair:

“I have had the misery of dying many times and the presence of it for years. Children neglected playing with street roughs. Slobbering food for months like an imbecile old man. Handkerchief – drop not able to pick up. Writing a letter – effort. … Neither lie stand walk sit without distress.”

Alongside these notes, however, are jottings relating to ‘Sun Life’, his next proposed spiritual work, which he had already begun writing. The Jefferies of February 1887 makes a poignant contrast to the eager ambitious youth seeking reporting work in the February of 1871. He had only 6 months to live, and for that time he wrote profusely about Sun Life in his notebooks, even alluding to a manuscript, which has never been traced. On 16 February he lists 22 key ideas for the work, which include:

“There is another Nature or Natures”

“That we do not really see things at all”

“That there is a whole of which I form a part, now, then, and after, and that this I recognise in looking at the cedar in the night, at the Dawn, even if I perish utterly as I understand perishing”

“That this whole is superior probably to all the common ideas of justice, beneficence”

“That the true work of man is the Man Help”

“There is more than I have imagined rather than less”

“The opening of the mind forever”






Jefferies’ notebooks

Hugoe Matthews and Phyllis Trietel, The Forward Life of Richard Jefferies. Petton Books, 1994.

Steve Milton on J.W. North




Simon Coleman

RJ head and shoulders framed

The first biography of Richard Jefferies appeared in 1888, the year after his death at the age of 38.  It was written by the novelist, Sir Walter Besant, who had become aware of Jefferies’ work in the 1870s and had subsequently followed his career very closely.  Besant never met Jefferies but knew, through business associations, the husband of Jefferies’ sister.  In compiling his biography he was given access to letters and notebooks that are no longer known.  This is how Besant described the physical appearance of Jefferies:


“In appearance Richard Jefferies was very tall—over six feet. He was always thin. At the age of seventeen his friends feared that he would go into a decline, which was happily averted—perhaps through his love for the open air. His hair was dark-brown; his beard was brown, with a shade of auburn; his forehead both high and broad; his features strongly marked; his nose long, clear, and straight; his lower lip thick; his eyebrows distinguished by the meditative droop; his complexion was fair, with very little colour. The most remarkable feature in his face was his large and clear blue eye; it was so full that it ought to have been short-sighted, yet his sight was far as well as keen. His face was full of thought; he walked with somewhat noiseless tread and a rapid stride. He never carried an umbrella or wore a great-coat, nor, except in very cold weather, did he wear gloves. He had great powers of endurance in walking, but his physical strength was never great. In manner, as has been already stated, he was always reserved; at this time so much so as to appear morose to those who knew him but slightly.”


He also provides details of Jefferies’ daily lifestyle and routines, and some of his literary tastes.  In addition to those authors mentioned, Jefferies read much of Shakespeare, the Greek and Roman classics (especially Homer and Plato) and the ‘Arabian Nights’.  He is also known to have admired Robert Louis Stevenson but disliked Jane Austen.


“As for his personal habits, Jefferies was extremely simple and regular, even methodical. He breakfasted always at eight o’clock, often on nothing but dry toast and tea. After breakfast he went to his study, where he remained writing until half-past eleven. At that hour he always went out, whatever the weather and in all seasons, and walked until one o’clock. This morning walk was an absolute necessity for him. At one o’clock he returned and took an early dinner, which was his only substantial meal. His tastes were simple. He liked to have a plain roast or boiled joint, with abundance of vegetables, of which he was very fond, especially asparagus, sea-kale, and mushrooms. He would have preferred ale, but he found that light claret or burgundy suited him better, and therefore he drank daily a little of one or the other.


Dinner over, he read his daily paper, and slept for an hour by the fireside. Perhaps this after-dinner sleep may be taken as a sign of physical weakness. A young man of thirty ought not to want an hour’s sleep in the middle of the day. At three o’clock he awoke, and went for another walk, coming home at half-past four. He thus walked for three hours every day, which, for a quick walker, gives a distance of twelve miles—a very good allowance of fresh air. Men of all kinds, who have to keep the brain in constant activity, have found that the active exercise of walking is more valuable than any other way of recreation in promoting a healthy activity of the brain. To talk with children is a rest; to visit picture-galleries changes the current of thought; to play lawn tennis diverts the brain; but to walk both rests the brain and stimulates it. Jefferies acquired the habit of noting down in his walks, and storing away, those thousands of little things which make his writings the despair of people who think themselves minute observers. He took tea at five, and then worked again in his study till half-past eight, when he commonly finished work for the day. In other words, he gave up five hours of the solid day to work. It is, I think, impossible for a man to carry on literary work of any but the humblest kind for more than five hours a day; three hours remained for exercise, and the rest for food, rest, and reading. He took a little supper at nine, of cold meat and bread, with a glass of claret, and then read or conversed until eleven, when he went to bed. He took tobacco very rarely.


He had not a large library, because the works which he most wished to procure were generally beyond his means. For instance, he was always desirous, but never able, to purchase Sowerby’s “English Wild-Flowers.” His favourite novelists were Scott and Charles Reade. The conjunction of these two names gives me singular pleasure, as to one who admires the great qualities of Reade. He also liked the works of Ouida and Miss Braddon. He never cared greatly for Charles Dickens. I think the reason why Dickens did not touch him was that the kind of lower middle-class life which Dickens knew so well, and loved to portray, belonged exclusively to the town, which Jefferies did not know, and not to the country, which he did. He was never tired of Goethe’s “Faust,” which was always new to him. He loved old ballads, and among the poets, Dryden’s works were his favourite reading. In one thing he was imperious: the house must be kept quiet—absolutely quiet—while he was at work. Any household operations that made the least noise had to be postponed till he went out for his walk.”




beaminster chart knoll

Photo by Rebecca Welshman


When Richard Jefferies describes his move to Surrey in his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’, he alludes briefly to the meadows and woods which he wrote about at length in earlier works.  This landscape was obviously pleasing to him but he follows this with a powerful sentence that struck me with its sense of loving and profound reminiscence:


‘Hills that purify those who walk on them there were not’.


Hills play a prominent part in ‘The Story of My Heart’ which begins with Jefferies’ memorable ascent of Liddington Hill near his childhood home in north Wiltshire.  As those passages have been much-quoted by others, I searched for a hill-ascent description from a less familiar work by Jefferies.  This passage is from a manuscript, unpublished in his lifetime but included in S.J. Looker’s ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’ anthology.


‘It is the place of its growth which makes the wild thyme sweet. The labour of the ascent—the panting chest and quickened pulse—increases the pleasure of finding it. Up the long slope, over the turf, up till the strong air, inflating the chest, seems as if it would stretch the very bones: always upwards; but the grey bees win in this race and pass to the front easily. At each step the yoke of artificial life lightens on the shoulder; and at the summit falls away. The heart beats faster, being free; and the mind opens to the opening horizon. So intimately are the body and the mind bound together that, as the one climbs, the other aspires; and, on the ridge, we walk on a level above our old selves left beneath us.’


This might also be Liddington but we don’t know – and it doesn’t matter.  These are the chalk hills, the downs, where the wild thyme flourished in thick bunches.  The beautiful flower, with its magical, fresh scent became for Jefferies a symbol for a deeper, more aspiring, and more spiritual life.  ‘It is the place of its growth which makes the wild thyme sweet’.  The flower and the landscape act together, inspiring him to the physical effort of the climb.   The scent of moving air on these hills was, he tells us, ‘like an apple fresh plucked’.  The mind and body respond in equal measure and the inner places of the heart open to absorb the beauty and freedom of the experience.  The ‘artificial life’ of houses and bustling towns shrinks to insignificance.  The green ridges, the slowly curving horizons, the thyme and the rushing wind are true purifiers – of the mind, body and heart.


While the downs were the English hill ranges that he knew best, we should not neglect his writing on other upland areas where he spent time walking and thinking.  His 1882 expedition to Somerset, taking in Exmoor and the Quantock hills, produced some more fine prose.


‘From the Devon border I drifted like a leaf detached from a tree, across to a deep coombe in the Quantock Hills. The vast hollow is made for repose and lotus-eating; its very shape, like a hammock, indicates idleness. There the days go over noiselessly and without effort, like white summer clouds. Ridges each side rise high and heroically steep—it would be proper to set out and climb them, but not to-day, not now: some time presently…. Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery [hill] winds along the sky, not unlike the curved back of a crouching hare. The weight of the mountains is too great—what is the use of attempting to move? It is enough to look at them.’


He communicates a wonderful sense of repose and contentment within the landscape.  There is no need here for an energetic climb to a summit to escape the artificiality of daily life.   His explorations of nearby Exmoor were documented in his 1884 book, ‘Red Deer’.  There he found that the vast expanses of heather moorland almost overwhelmed the eye’s sense of relative distance.


‘The eye had nothing to rest on; it kept travelling farther, and whichever way I turned still there was the same space. It was twenty miles to the white cloud yonder looking through the air, and so it was twenty miles to the ridge, not the farthest, under it. The moor undulated on, now a coombe, now a rise, now pale grey-green where the surface had been burnt, and then dark where the heather was high; the moor undulated on, and it was twenty miles to the ridge and twenty to the cloud, and there was nothing between me and the cloud and the hill. A noise of thunder came, weary and travelling with difficulty. I glanced round; I could not see any cloud of thunderous character. How far could it have come? In enclosed countries thunder is not heard more than ten miles, but at this height — this seemingly level moor is twelve hundred feet above the sea — it may come how far?’


As he did on the chalk downs, Jefferies encountered on Exmoor that sense of infinite space produced by gently rolling uplands, though here the effect might have been increased due to the much greater height of the moorland.  Every hill range I have visited has impressed upon me its special character in its shape, proportions, colours, as well as more intangible qualities.  These are not always easy to define: words such as ‘nobility’, ‘mystery’, ‘boldness’ only partially capture these elusive essences.  And, not surprisingly, Jefferies sought out the magical spirit of the hills.


Late in his life, when he unexpectedly moved to the heavily forested high weald of Sussex, he experienced an unusually hard winter.


‘Harder and harder grew the frost, yet still the forest-clad hills possessed a something that drew the mind open to their largeness and grandeur.’  (‘Hours of Spring’)


Some silent mysterious quality lingers over many hill ranges.  Returning to the Wiltshire downs, Jefferies reminisces in ‘The Pageant of Summer’: ‘There was a presence everywhere, though unseen, on the open hills…’  In ‘On the Downs’ he finds expression for this mysterious ‘presence’ that hovers at the edges of awareness.  He imagines that ‘deeper, wider thoughts’ might await us just over the horizon of our consciousness.


‘The blue hill line arouses a perception of a current of thought which lies for the most part unrecognized within – an unconscious thought. By looking at this blue hill line this dormant power within the mind becomes partly visible; the heart wakes up to it.’


The downs he knew in his youth were also heavily marked by the relics of much earlier civilizations.  Tumuli, stone circles, hill forts and ancient trackways suggested a network of forgotten knowledge, of subtle connections between the landscape and the world of the dead – the ancestors.  Jefferies once described the downs as being ‘alive with the dead’ and, by the side of a tumulus, he imagines the vigorous life once enjoyed by the warrior interred there (‘The Story of My Heart’, chapter 3).   All this is evidence that he perceived the links between life, death and landscape.


With their beauty and free, open spaces, the unspoilt hill ranges inspire the body and the mind to a greater activity and a wider perception.  With their undulations and varying horizons they induce calmer and deeper thoughts outside the commonplace concerns of society.  And, when these wilder regions with their narrow paths and ancient landmarks become familiar to the walker, then the imagination begins to wander back through time, feeling into the lives of earlier peoples who saw the role of humans in a landscape in terms very different to those of our modern world.  Jefferies wanted to ‘free thought from every trammel’ and I am in no doubt that his wanderings on the hills gave him the belief that this was possible.


I’ll end with a short quote from Jefferies’ essay, ‘To Brighton’, which gives an account of a train journey from London to Brighton.  Two sentences that perhaps encapsulate his special affinity with the English chalk downs, in this case the South Downs.  ‘A breeze comes in at the carriage window – a wild puff, disturbing the heated stillness of the summer day. It is easy to tell where that came from – silently the Downs have stolen into sight.’

A Leafy November, 1879

Rebecca Welshman

Jefferies wrote this article for the Pall Mall Gazette in November 1879. It is based on observations made in his outdoor diary while he was living at Surbiton. The Jefferies family was renting 2 Woodside Terrace, on Ewell Road, which was in Tolworth in the Parish of Long Ditton. The front of the house faced in the direction of Tolworth Common and Richmond Park, and the back looked out in the direction of Hook, Claygate and Chessington.


Image of Richmond Park posted by Nicola Albon (

“The poplars alone at the opening of the month were bare of leaves. These tall trees, lifting their slender tops so high above the rest, contrasted the more in their leafless state with the thick foliage of the wood beneath them. Rows of elms in the hedges were still green, and of those that did show a yellow tint many upon examination could be seen to be decaying in the trunk or branches. That part of an elm which is slowly dying usually turns yellow first. On some of the oaks the inner leaves were still greenish, while those on the outer boughs were brown, and the mingling of the two tints seen at a little distance under the sunshine produced a remarkable and pleasing colour. Other oak-trees had assumed so red a brown as to approach to copper colour. The ash standing in the same hedge was a tender green with the faintest undertone of yellow, and the lowly elder bushes were not less green than at midsummer. Between the dark Scotch firs the foliage of the beeches seemed a warm red. The branches of the larch had a fluffy appearance, caused by the yellow needles which had partly separated but had not yet fallen. Horse-chestnuts even yet retained some leaves; of those that had dropped a few were half yellow and half green, the hues divided by the midrib. Birches, too, except just at the corners of the copses or in isolated positions, were not yet bare.


Under the Spanish chestnuts heaps of leaves had collected, in walking through which the foot often exposed the dropped fruit hidden beneath them; but though so many had fallen the branches were not entirely denuded ; while whole hedgerows full of maple bushes glowed with orange. The sun shone brilliantly day after day, lighting up the varied hues of the trees and hedges and filling the wood­lands with beauty. In proportion to the length of the day there was probably more visible sunshine in the early part of November than in July. A dry atmosphere made the roads white, and the least puff of wind raised the dust as in March. In the evenings, immediately after the sun sank, the western sky often exhibited a delicate greenish tint, while the detached floating clouds were rosy: these colours, however, were very fleeting—they lasted but a few minutes.


The dry air could hardly be said to blow, but drifted, as it were, from the north-east—so slowly that unless you faced it the current was not noticed; and it scarcely caused a falling leaf to slant aside in its descent. But this northern current silenced the thrushes, despite the sunshine, and made the nights sometimes bitterly cold. Here in the south, the first fieldfares were noticed on the 24th of October, when a few passed over at some height: but during the first week or ten days of November scarcely a fieldfare or redwing appeared, and those seen were journeying on. The absence of these birds was very marked. On the afternoon of the 9th inst. the sweet notes of the thrush were heard again—a sure sign of changing weather. Next morning it was milder and cloudy, with slight rain, and the thrushes sang in every hedge. The leaves that had adhered so long, now, under the rise of temperature, fell fast and continuously, dropping quietly all day long, even when sheltered from wind. Soon, however, the breezes became colder; the song of the thrushes ceased and frost followed. A water-rat was seen on the 14th diving in the brook; he probably did not anticipate so sudden a winter. Next morning the ponds were all frozen fast with ice half-an-inch thick, in which myriads of leaves that had been floating were embedded. For fifty or sixty yards one great hedgerow resounded with the ceaseless chirping of innumer­able sparrows perched on every bough. Their feeding-grounds, the stubbles, were iron-bound, affording them no food. The peewits scarcely kept out of gunshot, so tamed or rendered desperate by the cold, and instead of feeding in a flock were scattered in twos and threes over twenty acres.


In the hedges the fieldfares and redwings were now plentiful: so short a time had brought them about. It is not often that birds are so quickly affected by frost as on this occasion— a single night seemed to have numbed them. The white rime remained fringing the green branches of the spruce firs all day; the fields too, were hoar; and it was perfectly still as usual in a great frost. Yet the sun shone, and where the pond had been broken for the horses to drink, splinters of ice standing on edge reflected the golden splendour. At night a yet sharper frost settled on the earth: but on the morning of the 16th though the grass was white, the thrushes sang in chorus, and immediately afterwards rain fell. The rime disappeared and the frost went as rapidly as it came. Its effects upon the foliage were then visible. Under the ashes the grass was concealed by the leaves shrivelled to a black brown, from which arose a slightly astringent odour. Where maple bushes projected over the bare earth of ploughed fields there was an orange semi-circle upon the clods caused by the tinted leaves that had dropped. Horse-chestnuts and birches were now quite bare: but not so the elms and oaks. The elms were yellow, but still thick with leaves; some of the oaks had even yet a tint of green. On the morning of the 20th it began to snow, and the rows of yellowish elms formed a strange background to the storm. The blast drove before it snow-flakes, brown leaves, and twirling ‘keys’ torn from the trees. With short intervals the snow continued all day, whitening the fields and that side of the trees towards the wind. The bramble-bushes, thick with green leaves, upheld masses of snow: so green and flourishing are the brambles that not a crimson leaf is yet to be found upon them. Snow fell again on the 21st and 22nd and the fields continued covered.


There was a severe frost on the morning of the 23rd. As the morning advanced the sun shone out in an almost cloudless sky, and the yellowish green elms and the brown oaks seemed brought into strong relief by the dazzling white of the fields. And over the broad white meadows the shadows of these trees were thrown sharp and clear—a lovely sight not often seen. Thus, with bright sunshine at one time and snow at another, with sharp frosts, leafy woods, and singing thrushes, November has presented the most marked contrasts.”



The Dawn

Introduced by Simon Coleman


Photo source:

‘THE DAWN’ by Richard Jefferies (full text)
Jefferies’ late essay, ‘The Dawn’, was unpublished in his lifetime but appeared in Edward Thomas’ 1909 anthology titled ‘The Hills and the Vale’.  In ‘The Dawn’, the faint light of daybreak awakens Jefferies’ imagination which then wanders freely through space and time.  He muses on the mysteries and possibilities present in light and widens his thought to take in other properties of nature such as magnetism and electricity.  He even considers how we might communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  While the prose is unpolished and betrays his struggle to find suitable language to express his ideas, his thirst for knowledge and truth is inspiring.  And this is not a quest for dry scientific or academic knowledge: Jefferies wants answers that might one day be translated into real benefits for mankind.  This is the main theme of the second part of his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’: how to improve the physical and spiritual life of man.  ‘The Dawn’ is the type of work that allows an insight into the raw material of an author’s imagination.  It shows Jefferies, once again, as a free thinker, always looking for another circle of ideas beyond those already known, always ahead of his time.


“There came to my bedside this morning a visitant that has been present at the bedside of everyone who has lived for ten thousand years. In the darkness I was conscious of a faint light not visible if I looked deliberately to find it, but seen sideways, and where I was not gazing. It slipped from direct glance as a shadow may slip from a hand-grasp, but it was there floating in the atmosphere of the room. I could not say that it shone on the wall or lit the distant corner. Light is seen by reflection, but this light was visible of itself like a living thing, a visitant from the unknown. The dawn was in the chamber, and by degrees this intangible and slender existence would enlarge and deepen into day. Ever since I used to rise early to bathe, or shoot, or see the sunrise, the habit has remained of waking at the same hour, so that I see the dawn morning after morning, though I may sleep again immediately. Sometimes the change of the seasons makes it broad sunlight,
sometimes it is still dark; then again the faint grey light is there, and I know that the distant hills are becoming defined along the sky. But though so familiar, that spectral light in the silence has never lost its meaning, the violets are sweet year by year though never so many summers pass away; indeed, its meaning grows wider and more difficult as the time goes on. For think, this spectre of the light – light’s double-ganger – has stood by the couch of every human being for thousands and thousands of years. Sleeping or waking, happily dreaming, or wrenched with pain, whether they have noticed it or not, the finger of this light has pointed towards them. When they were building the pyramids, five thousand years ago, straight the arrow of light shot from the sun, lit their dusky forms, and glowed on the endless sand. Endless as that desert sand may be, innumerable in multitude its grains, there was and is a ray of light for each. A ray for every invisible atom that dances in the air – for the million million changing facets of the million ocean waves. Immense as these numbers may be, they are not incomprehensible. The priestess at Delphi in her moment of inspiration declared that she knew the number of the sands. Such number falls into insignificance before the mere thought of light, its speed, its quantity, its existence over space, and yet the idea of light is easy to the mind. The mind is the priestess of the Delphic temple of our bodies, and sees and understands things for which language is imperfect, and notation deficient. There is a secret alphabet in it to every letter of which we unconsciously assign a value, just as the mathematician may represent a thousand by the letter A. In my own mind the idea of light is associated with the colour yellow, not the yellow of the painters, or of flowers, but a quick flash. This quick bright flash of palest yellow in the thousandth of an instant reminds me, or rather conveys in itself, the whole idea of light–the accumulated idea of study and thought. I suppose it to be a memory of looking at the sun–a quick glance at the sun leaves something such an impression on the retina. With that physical impression all the calculations that I have read, and all the ideas that have occurred to me, are bound up. It is the sign – the letter – the expression of light. To the builders of the pyramids came the arrow from the sun, tinting their dusky forms, and glowing in the sand. To me it comes white and spectral in the silence, a finger pointed, a voice saying, ‘Even now you know nothing.’ Five thousand years since they were fully persuaded that they understood the universe, the course of the stars, and the secrets of life and death. What did they know of the beam of light that shone on the sonorous lap of their statue Memnon? The telescope, the microscope, and the prism have parted light and divided it, till it seems as if further discovery were impossible. This beam of light brings an account of the sun, clear as if written in actual letters, for example stating that certain minerals are as certainly there as they are here. But when in the silence I see the pale visitant at my bedside, and the mind rushes in one spring back to the builders of the pyramids who were equally sure with us, the thought will come to me that even now there may be messages in that beam undeciphered. With a turn of the heliograph, a mere turn of the wrist, a message is easily flashed twenty miles to the observer. You cannot tell what knowledge may not be pouring down in every ray; messages that are constant and perpetual, the same from age to age. These are physical messages. There is beyond this just a possibility that beings in distant earths possessed of greater knowledge than ourselves may be able to transmit their thoughts along, or by the ray, as we do along wires. In the days to come, when a deeper insight shall have been gained into the motions and properties of those unseen agents we call forces, such as magnetism, electricity, gravitation, perhaps a method will be devised to use them for communication. If so, communication with distant earths is quite within reasonable hypothesis. At this hour it is not more impossible than the transmission of a message to the antipodes in a few minutes would have been to those who lived a century since. The inhabitants of distant earths may have endeavoured to communicate with us in this way for ought we know time after time. Such a message is possibly contained sometimes in the pale beam which comes to my bedside. That beam always impresses me with a profound, an intense and distressful sense of ignorance, of being outside the intelligence of the universe, as if there were a vast civilization in view and yet not entered. Mere villagers and rustics creeping about a sullen earth, we know nothing of the grandeur and intellectual brilliance of that civilization. This beam fills me with unutterable dissatisfaction. Discontent, restless longing, anger at the denseness of the perception, the stupidity with which we go round and round in the old groove till accident shows us a fresh field. Consider, all that has been wrested from light has been gained by mere bits of glass. Mere bits of glass in curious shapes–poor feeble glass, quickly broken, made of flint, of the flint that mends the road. To this almost our highest conceptions are due. Could we employ the ocean as a lens we might tear truth from the sky. Could the greater intelligences that dwell on the planets and stars communicate with us, they might enable us to conquer the disease and misery which bear down the masses of the world. Perhaps they do not die. The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then? At present we cannot conceive a universe without a central solar orb for it to gather about and swing around. But that is only because hitherto our positive, physical knowledge has gone no farther. It can as yet only travel as far as this, as analogous beams of light. Light comes from the uttermost bounds of our star system – to that rim we can extend a positive thought. Beyond, and around it, whether it is solid, or fluid, or ether, or whether, as is most probable, there exist things absolutely different to any that have come under eyesight yet is not known. May there not be light we cannot see? Gravitation is an unseen light; so too magnetism; electricity or its effect is sometimes visible, sometimes not. Besides these there may be more delicate forces not instrumentally demonstrable. A force, or a wave, or a motion – an unseen light – may at this moment be flowing in upon us from that unknown space without and beyond the stellar system. It may contain messages from thence as this pale visitant does from the sun. It may outstrip light in speed as light outstrips an arrow. The more delicate, the more ethereal, then the fuller and more varied the knowledge it holds. There may be other things beside matter and motion, or force. All natural things known to us as yet may be referred to those two conditions: One, Force; Two, Matter. A third, a fourth, a fifth – no one can say how many conditions – may exist in the ultra-stellar space, beyond the most distant stars. Such a condition may even be about us now unsuspected. Something which is neither force nor matter is difficult to conceive; the mind cannot give it tangible shape even as a thought. Yet I think it more than doubtful if the entire universe, visible and invisible, is composed of these two. To me it seems almost demonstrable by rational induction that the entire universe must consist of more than two conditions. The grey dawn every morning warns me not to be certain that all is known. Analysis by the prism alone has quite doubled the knowledge that was previously available. In the light itself there may still exist as much more to be learnt, and then there may be other forces and other conditions to be first found out and next to tell their story. As at present known the whole system is so easy and simple, one body revolving round another, and so on; it is as easy to understand as the motion of a stone that has been thrown. This simplicity makes me misdoubt. Is it all? Space – immeasurable space – offers such possibilities that the mind is forced to the conclusion that it is not, that there must be more. I cannot thinkthat the universe can be so very very easy as this.”






Two excerpts here from Jefferies’ 1880 book, ‘Round About a Great Estate’.  The fourth and last of the four ‘country books’ that launched his career, it is an attractive miscellany of rural life, country lore and natural history.  John Fowles wrote that the book ‘comes from the heart of his special landscape, in every sense: personally, historically, spiritually, aesthetically.’


“It happened one Sunday morning in June that a swarm of bees issued from a hive in a cottage garden near Okebourne church. The queen at first took up her position in an elm tree just outside the churchyard, where a large cluster of bees quickly depended from a bough. Being at a great height the cottager could not take them, and, anxious not to lose the swarm, he resorted to the ancient expedient of rattling fire-tongs and shovel together in order to attract them by the clatter. The discordant banging of the fire-irons resounded in the church, the doors being open to admit the summer air; and the noise became so uproarious that the clerk presently, at a sign from the rector, went out to stop it, for the congregation were in a grin. He did stop it, the cottager desisting with much reluctance; but, as if to revenge the bee-master’s wrongs, in the course of the day the swarm, quitting the elm, entered the church and occupied a post in the roof.


After a while it was found that the swarm had finally settled there, and were proceeding to build combs and lay in a store of honey. The bees, indeed, became such a terror to nervous people, buzzing without ceremony over their heads as they stood up to sing, and caused such a commotion and buffeting with Prayer-books and fans and handkerchiefs, that ultimately the congregation were compelled to abandon their pews. All efforts to dislodge the bees proving for the time ineffectual, the rector had a temporary reading-desk erected in the porch, and there held the service, the congregation sitting on chairs and forms in the yard, and some on the stone tombs, and even on the sward under the shade of the yew tree.


In the warm dry hay-making weather this open-air worship was very pleasant, the flowers in the grass and the roses in the little plots about the tombs giving colour and sweet odours, while the swallows glided gracefully overhead and sometimes a blackbird whistled. The bees, moreover, interfered with the baptisms, and even caused several marriages to be postponed. Inside the porch was a recess where the women left their pattens in winter, instead of clattering iron-shod down the aisle.”


“The heat of a warm June day seemed still more powerful in this hollow. The sedges, into which two or three moorhens had retired at my approach, were still, and the leaves on the boughs overhanging the water were motionless. Where there was a space free from weeds—a deeper hole near the bank—a jack basked at the surface in the sunshine. High above on the hill stood a tall dead fir, from whose trunk the bark was falling; it had but one branch, which stood out bare and stark across the sky. There came a sound like distant thunder, but there were no clouds overhead, and it was not possible to see far round. Pushing gently through the hawthorn bushes and ash-stoles at the farther end of the pond, I found a pleasant little stream rushing swiftly over a clear chalky bottom, hastening away down to the larger brook.


Beyond it rose a mound and hedgerow, up to which came the meadows, where, from the noise, the cattle seemed racing to and fro, teased by insects. Tiny black flies alighting on my hands and face, irritated the skin; the haymakers call them ‘thunder-flies;’ but the murmur of the running water was so delicious that I sat down on a bulging tree-root, almost over the stream, and listened to the thrushes singing. Had it been merely warm they would have been silent. They do not sing in dry sunshine, but they knew what was coming; so that there is no note so hated by the haymaker as that of the thrush. The birds were not in the firs, but in the ash-trees along the course of the rill.


The voice of the thrush is the most ‘cultivated,’ so to speak, of all our birds: the trills, the runs, the variations, are so numerous and contrasted. Not even the nightingale can equal it: the nightingale has not nearly such command: the thrush seems to know no limit. I own I love the blackbird best, but in excellence of varied music the thrush surpasses all. Few birds, except those that are formed for swimming, come to a still pond. They like a clear running stream; they visit the sweet running water for drinking and bathing. Dreaming away the time, listening to the rush of the water bubbling about the stones, I did not notice that the sky had become overcast, till suddenly a clap of thunder near at hand awakened me. Some heavy drops of rain fell; I looked up and saw the dead branch of the fir on the hill stretched out like a withered arm across a black cloud.”



                               SIMON COLEMAN                                


“Begin wholly afresh. Go straight to the sun, the immense forces of the universe, to the Entity unknown; go higher than a god; deeper than prayer; and open a new day.”

(‘The Story of My Heart’)


Jefferies reached a point in his life when he felt himself standing face to face with the great unknown, having erased much of traditional learning and culture from his mind.  With this feeling came a need to search for ‘higher’ ideas that might improve human life.  This search  became central to his life and it was heart-driven.  It was individual; sometimes passionate, sometimes calm and philosophical.


Reading ‘The Story of My Heart’, we find that the concentrated energy of the individual search gradually flows outwards to engage with the more universal questions of human existence.  It was not a purely personal journey.


“How pleasant it would be each day to think, To-day I have done something that will tend to render future generations more happy. The very thought would make this hour sweeter. It is absolutely necessary that something of this kind should be discovered. First, we must lay down the axiom that as yet nothing has been found; we have nothing to start with; all has to be begun afresh. All courses or methods of human life have hitherto been failures. Some course of life is needed based on things that are, irrespective of tradition. The physical ideal must be kept steadily in view.”


We could obviously take issue with the idea that ‘nothing has been found’ to improve human life, but Jefferies is speaking from the heart; I would prefer to say that he is thinking from the heart.  His body and its senses, his thought and emotions are all within the heart, and through their combined actions he is able to conceive a better human life: a more beautiful, free and hope-embracing life that moves away from past beliefs.  To this vision the magical, calm and dynamic presence of Nature is central.


At some level of being, human life is in harmony with the laws of Nature.  I don’t mean the scientific laws of nature which are the product of purely intellectual drives.  Let’s turn to the great American poet, Walt Whitman, who, in his ‘Leaves of Grass’, admired the cohesion and order of Nature, the earth and the universe.



“The soul is always beautiful,

The universe is duly in order, every thing is in its place,

What has arrived is in its place and what waits shall be in its place”

(‘The Sleepers’)


He sees no imperfection anywhere in Nature.


“Pleasantly and well-suited I walk,

Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,

The whole universe indicates that it is good,

The past and the present indicate that it is good.


How beautiful and perfect are the animals!

How perfect the earth, and the minutest thing upon it!

What is called good is perfect, and what is called bad is just as perfect,

The vegetables and minerals are all perfect, and the imponderable

      fluids perfect;

Slowly and surely they have pass’d on to this, and slowly and surely

      they yet pass on.”

(‘Song of Myself’)


The natural order of the universe is in accord with the quality of the human heart which understands beauty and recognises the subtle truths woven into our lives.  Whitman was less concerned than Jefferies with actively searching for something of true value to mankind – he saw beauty and meaning everywhere.  Their language is different but both were exceptionally well attuned to their physical senses and responded instinctively to Nature.  From these responses they created great spiritual language, at times bringing mankind and Nature together in a perfect fusion.


The principal desire shared by Jefferies and Whitman was to make human life as perfect as possible; in other words, as beautiful and natural as possible.  To some this is simply pointless idealism but, in the view of Jefferies and Whitman, the existence of an ideal in the heart is a requirement for a full and healthy life.   If the perfect life is even to be imagined, Nature’s beauty must be invoked.   In the following passage from ‘The Story of My Heart’, Jefferies, while looking at Greek sculptures (which express both the ideal and the real), has a vision of supreme calm and beauty.  To me, this is real spiritual language: the language of the heart.


“The statues are not, it is said, the best; broken too, and mutilated, and seen in a dull, commonplace light. But they were shape—divine shape of man and woman; the form of limb and torso, of bust and neck, gave me a sighing sense of rest. These were they who would have stayed with me under the shadow of the oaks while the blackbirds fluted and the south air swung the cowslips. They would have walked with me among the reddened gold of the wheat. They would have rested with me on the hill-tops and in the narrow valley grooved of ancient times. They would have listened with me to the sob of the summer sea drinking the land. These had thirsted of sun, and earth, and sea, and sky. Their shape spoke this thirst and desire like mine—if I had lived with them from Greece till now I should not have had enough of them. Tracing the form of limb and torso with the eye gave me a sense of rest.

Sometimes I came in from the crowded streets and ceaseless hum; one glance at these shapes and I became myself. Sometimes I came from the Reading-room [of the British Museum], where under the dome I often looked up from the desk and realised the crushing hopelessness of books, useless, not equal to one bubble borne along on the running brook I had walked by, giving no thought like the spring when I lifted the water in my hand and saw the light gleam on it. Torso and limb, bust and neck instantly returned me to myself; I felt as I did lying on the turf listening to the wind among the grass; it would have seemed natural to have found butterflies fluttering among the statues. The same deep desire was with me. I shall always go to speak to them; they are a place of pilgrimage; wherever there is a beautiful statue there is a place of pilgrimage.”