COSMIC LIONS

Simon Coleman

trafalgar lions

Richard Jefferies wrote two great essays on the theme of Trafalgar Square in London.  One of them, ‘Sunlight in a London Square’, has already been featured on this website.  The following quote is from ‘The Lions in Trafalgar Square’ which explores the relationship between human life and the great unknown, with Landseer’s huge lions symbolising a link between ourselves and the cosmos.

 

‘At summer noontide, when the day surrounds us and it is bright light even in the shadow, I like to stand by one of the lions and yield to the old feeling. The sunshine glows on the dusky creature, as it seems, not on the surface, but under the skin, as if it came up from out of the limb. The roar of the rolling wheels sinks and becomes distant as the sound of a waterfall when dreams are coming. All the abundant human life is smoothed and levelled, the abruptness of the individuals lost in the flowing current, like separate flowers drawn along in a border, like music heard so far off that the notes are molten and the theme only remains. The abyss of the sky over and the ancient sun are near. They only are close at hand, they and immortal thought. When the yellow Syrian lions stood in old time of Egypt, then too, the sunlight gleamed on the eyes of men, as now this hour on mine. The same consciousness of light, the same sun, but the eyes that saw it and mine, how far apart! The immense lion here beside me expresses larger nature—cosmos—the ever-existent thought which sustains the world. Massiveness exalts the mind till the vast roads of space which the sun tramples are as an arm’s-length. Such a moment cannot endure long; gradually the roar deepens, the current resolves into individuals, the houses return—it is only a square.’

 

Here is a link to the full text.   http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27516/27516-h/27516-h.htm#THE_LIONS_IN_TRAFALGAR_SQUARE

 

I really encourage people to read the essay because it possesses a true strength of heart and mind.  I can’t fully explain what I mean by that; nor can I clearly explain why the essay has such a powerful effect on me.  Jefferies celebrates the lions as great art:

 

‘…these are truer and more real, and, besides, these are lions to whom has been added the heart of a man. Nothing disfigures them; smoke and, what is much worse, black rain—rain which washes the atmosphere of the suspended mud—does not affect them in the least. If the choke-damp of fog obscures them, it leaves no stain on the design; if the surfaces be stained, the idea made tangible in metal is not. They are no more touched than Time itself by the alternations of the seasons. The only noble open-air work of native art in the four-million city, they rest there supreme and are the centre.’

 

He then launches into an attack on the fashionable art of his day which he finds shallow and untrue to nature.  This short outburst is the one small blemish on the essay.  Having read the work a number of times, I began to see that it’s not really about visual art.  What I sense it possesses are poetic ideas of real importance.  I’m not a poet but I do think that poetic ideas exist in all people, whether or not they are ever recognised or expressed.  The belief that we can go beyond the given, the defined, our own private and petty fates, the expected outcomes of thought and action, and confront the unknown – belongs to the poetic insight and this, I feel, is what holds the essay together.

 

The mind, the idea, expressed by Jefferies’ lions, opens up possibilities for accessing new realms of thought and imagination – ‘cosmic’ realms where human life might know something of a greater Nature.  Time collapses, but the experience is fleeting as all true insights are.

 

How urgently we need poetic ideas in our data-driven world controlled by an ideologically-focused mass-media, not necessarily to escape it but to feel beyond it towards larger and freer channels of thought.  We can’t all be poets in the literary sense, but accessing the poetic archetype is surely a human necessity.

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The Park in Early Summer

Rebecca Welshman

Tryon, Kate Allen, 1865-1952; Burderop Park, Wiltshire

Painting of Burderop Park by Kate Tryon

This extract is taken from Jefferies’ first book of critical acclaim The Gamekeeper at Home, first published in serial form in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1878. Jefferies befriended the gamekeeper Benny Haylock, of the Burderop Estate near Coate, Swindon, and accompanied him on his rounds. This extract connects with our previous post about the Roman Brook. The skeletons that come to light, and the idea that the tapestry of our environment is thickly interwoven with dead or past states, resonates even more as we step deeper into summer. The brightness of the hawthorn bloom, the lights of the horse chestnut candelabra and the flowering crab apple have emerged out of the season of loss and decay that preceded them. Human conflict has stained the ground, Jefferies says, yet the flowers still bloom.

“In summer from out the leafy chambers of the limes there falls the pleasant sound of bees innumerable, the voice of whose trembling wings lulls the listening ear as the drowsy sunshine weighs the eyelid till I walk the avenue in a dream. It leads out into the park—no formal gravel drive, simply a footpath on the sward between the flowering trees: a path that becomes less and less marked as I advance, and finally fades away, where the limes cease, in the broad level of the opening “greeny field.” These honey-bees seem to fly higher and to exhibit much more activity than the great humble-bee: here in the limes they must be thirty feet above the ground. Wasps also frequently wing their way at a considerable elevation, and thus it is that the hive-bee and the wasp so commonly enter the upper windows of houses. When its load of honey is completed, the bee, too, returns home in a nearly straight line, high enough in the air to pass over hedges and such obstacles without the labour of rising up and sinking again.

The heavy humble-bee is generally seen close to the earth, and often goes down into the depths of the dry ditches, and may there be heard buzzing slowly along under the arch of briar and bramble. He seems to lose his way now and then in the tangled undergrowth of the woods; and if a footstep disturbs and alarms him, it is amusing to see his desperate efforts to free himself hastily from the interlacing grass-blades and ferns.

When the sap is rising, the bark of the smaller shoots of the lime-tree “slips” easily—i.e. it can be peeled in hollow cylinders if judiciously tapped and loosened by gentle blows from the back of a knife. The ploughboys know this, and make whistles out of such branches, as they do also from the willow, and even the sycamore in the season when the sap comes up in its flood-tide.

It is difficult to decide at what time of the year the park is in its glory. The may-flower on the great hawthorn trees in spring may perhaps claim the pre-eminence, filling the soft breeze with exquisite odour. These here are trees, not bushes, standing separate, with thick gnarled stems so polished by the constant rubbing of cattle as almost to shine like varnish. The may-bloom, pure white in its full splendour, takes a dull reddish tinge as it fades, when a sudden shake will bring it down in showers. A flowering tree, I fancy, looks best when apart and not one of a row. In the latter case you can only see two sides and not all round it. Here tall horse-chestnut trees stand single—one great silvery candelabrum of blossom. Wood-pigeons appear to have a liking for this tree. Nor must the humble crab-tree be forgotten; a crab-tree in bloom is a lovely sight.

The idea of a park is associated with peace and pleasure, yet even here there is one spot where the passions of men have left their mark. As previously hinted, the gamekeeper, like most persons with little book-learning and who take their impressions from nature, is somewhat superstitious, and regards this place as “unkid”—i.e. weird, uncanny. One particular green “drive” into the wood opening on the park had always been believed to be a part of a military track used many ages ago, but long since ploughed up for the greater part of its length, and only preserved here by the accident of passing through a wood. At last some labourers grubbing trees near the mouth of the drive came upon a number of human skeletons, close beneath the surface, and in their confused arrangement presenting every sign of hasty interment, as if after battle. Since then the keeper avoids the spot; nor will he, hardy as he is, go near it at night; not even in the summer moonlight, when the night is merely a prolongation of the day.

There is nothing unusual in such a discovery: skeletons are found in all manner of places. I recollect seeing one dug out from the bank of a brook within two feet of the stream. The place was perhaps in the olden time covered with forest (traces of forest are to be found everywhere, as in the names of hamlets), and therefore more concealed than at present. Or, possibly, the stream, in the slow passage of centuries, may have worn its way far from its original bed.

It is strange to think of, yet it is true enough, that, beautiful as the country is, with its green meadows and graceful trees, its streams and forests and peaceful homesteads, it would be difficult to find an acre of ground that has not been stained with blood. A melancholy reflection this, that carries the mind backwards, while the thrush sings on the bough, through the nameless skirmishes of the Civil War, the cruel assassinations of the rival Roses, down to the axes of the Saxons and the ghastly wounds they made. Everywhere under the flowers are the dead.”

horse chestnut tree

hawthorn bloom

‘A ROMAN BROOK’

SIMON COLEMAN

paola dastra brook in the woods

Here is the full text of Jefferies’ subtle and poignant short essay, ‘A Roman Brook’.  This is a work that, for me, opens up creative pathways for thought – pathways into deep questions about life, death, love and time. The brook nourishes both the life of the fields and human life and it seems to wind through time as well as through the fields.  Jefferies explores the highly visual character of his memory which seems to acquire greater importance after he has reminded us that the brook possesses no memories of him.  Throughout there are references to hidden, forgotten or disappearing things.  He observes that nature’s beauty does not exist for human admiration, but for purposes beyond our ideas – a recurring theme in his late works.  The brook, having been associated with so much life, at the end reveals its melancholy secret.  Death, however long concealed, exists side by side with life.

 

The deceptively simple descriptions are coming directly from memory, shaped so as to present us with clear images – memory pictures.  His imagination adds some touches that point to a real depth of perception, such as  “…something that carries the mind home to primitive times”, and “… just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.”  And, typically, his beloved Homeric Greece is not left out.

 

‘A Roman Brook’

 

“The brook has forgotten me, but I have not forgotten the brook. Many faces have been mirrored since in the flowing water, many feet have waded in the sandy shallow. I wonder if any one else can see it in a picture before the eyes as I can, bright, and vivid as trees suddenly shown at night by a great flash of lightning. All the leaves and branches and the birds at roost are visible during the flash. It is barely a second; it seems much longer. Memory, like the lightning, reveals the pictures in the mind. Every curve, and shore, and shallow is as familiar now as when I followed the winding stream so often. When the mowing-grass was at its height, you could not walk far beside the bank; it grew so thick and strong and full of umbelliferous plants as to weary the knees. The life as it were of the meadows seemed to crowd down towards the brook in summer, to reach out and stretch towards the life-giving water. There the buttercups were taller and closer together, nails of gold driven so thickly that the true surface was not visible. Countless rootlets drew up the richness of the earth like miners in the darkness, throwing their petals of yellow ore broadcast above them. With their fulness of leaves the hawthorn bushes grow larger—the trees extend farther—and thus overhung with leaf and branch, and closely set about by grass and plant, the brook disappeared only a little way off, and could not have been known from a mound and hedge. It was lost in the plain of meads—the flowers alone saw its sparkle.

 

Hidden in those bushes and tall grasses, high in the trees and low on the ground, there were the nests of happy birds. In the hawthorns blackbirds and thrushes built, often overhanging the stream, and the fledglings fluttered out into the flowery grass. Down among the stalks of the umbelliferous plants, where the grasses were knotted together, the nettle-creeper concealed her treasure, having selected a hollow by the bank so that the scythe should pass over. Up in the pollard ashes and willows here and there wood-pigeons built. Doves cooed in the little wooded enclosures where the brook curved almost round upon itself. If there was a hollow in the oak a pair of starlings chose it, for there was no advantageous nook that was not seized on. Low beside the willow stoles the sedge-reedlings built; on the ledges of the ditches, full of flags, moor-hens made their nests. After the swallows had coursed long miles over the meads to and fro, they rested on the tops of the ashes and twittered sweetly. Like the flowers and grass, the birds were drawn towards the brook. They built by it, they came to it to drink; in the evening a grasshopper-lark trilled in a hawthorn bush. By night crossing the footbridge a star sometimes shone in the water underfoot. At morn and even the peasant girls came down to dip; their path was worn through the mowing-grass, and there was a flat stone let into the bank as a step to stand on. Though they were poorly habited, without one line of form or tint of colour that could please the eye, there is something in dipping water that is Greek—Homeric—something that carries the mind home to primitive times. Always the little children came with them; they too loved the brook like the grass and birds. They wanted to see the fishes dart away and hide in the green flags: they flung daisies and buttercups into the stream to float and catch awhile at the flags, and float again and pass away, like the friends of our boyhood, out of sight. Where there was pasture roan cattle came to drink, and horses, restless horses, stood for hours by the edge under the shade of ash trees. With what joy the spaniel plunged in, straight from the bank out among the flags—you could mark his course by seeing their tips bend as he brushed them swimming. All life loved the brook.

 

Far down away from roads and hamlets there was a small orchard on the very bank of the stream, and just before the grass grew too high to walk through I looked in the enclosure to speak to its owner. He was busy with his spade at a strip of garden, and grumbled that the hares would not let it alone, with all that stretch of grass to feed on. Nor would the rooks; and the moor-hens ran over it, and the water-rats burrowed; the wood-pigeons would have the peas, and there was no rest from them all. While he talked and talked, far from the object in hand, as aged people will, I thought how the apple tree in blossom before us cared little enough who saw its glory. The branches were in bloom everywhere, at the top as well as at the side; at the top where no one could see them but the swallows. They did not grow for human admiration: that was not their purpose; that is our affair only—we bring the thought to the tree. On a short branch low down the trunk there hung the weather-beaten and broken handle of an earthenware vessel; the old man said it was a jug, one of the old folks’ jugs—he often dug them up. Some were cracked, some nearly perfect; lots of them had been thrown out to mend the lane. There were some chips among the heap of weeds yonder. These fragments were the remains of Anglo-Roman pottery. Coins had been found—half a gallon of them—the children had had most. He took one from his pocket, dug up that morning; they were of no value, they would not ring. The labourers tried to get some ale for them, but could not; no one would take the little brass things. That was all he knew of the Caesars: the apples were in fine bloom now, weren’t they?

 

Fifteen centuries before there had been a Roman station at the spot where the lane crossed the brook. There the centurions rested their troops after their weary march across the downs, for the lane, now bramble-grown and full of ruts, was then a Roman road. There were villas, and baths, and fortifications; these things you may read about in books. They are lost now in the hedges, under the flowering grass, in the ash copses, all forgotten in the lane, and along the footpath where the June roses will bloom after the apple blossom has dropped. But just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.

 

The old man, seeing my interest in the fragments of pottery, wished to show me something of a different kind lately discovered. He led me to a spot where the brook was deep, and had somewhat undermined the edge. A horse trying to drink there had pushed a quantity of earth into the stream, and exposed a human skeleton lying within a few inches of the water. Then I looked up the stream and remembered the buttercups and tall grasses, the flowers that crowded down to the edge; I remembered the nests, and the dove cooing; the girls that came down to dip, the children that cast their flowers to float away. The wind blew the loose apple bloom and it fell in showers of painted snow. Sweetly the greenfinches were calling in the trees: afar the voice of the cuckoo came over the oaks. By the side of the living water, the water that all things rejoiced in, near to its gentle sound, and the sparkle of sunshine on it, had lain this sorrowful thing.”

 

An Extraordinary Journey: Richard Jefferies and the month of February

Rebecca Welshman

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

skylark

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.”

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/341674

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

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‘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.”

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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”

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References

 

Jefferies’ notebooks

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

Steve Milton on J.W. North

http://www.southwilts.com/site/The-Idyllists/JWN-Working-Notes.htm

 

IMPRESSIONS OF RICHARD JEFFERIES

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.”

 

SPIRIT HILLS

SIMON COLEMAN

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.

mg_1369

Image of Richmond Park posted by Nicola Albon (http://sliceoflondonlife.com/wildlife-deer-rut-richmond-park/)

“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.”