An Invisible Touch
by Simon Coleman
Some of Jefferies’ most evocative and profound writing can be found in his essays – a format which suited his talent for combining vivid description with a powerful idealism. In the 1880s he developed a more poetic and fluid style, enabling him to create prose pieces that suggested, in a subtle way, a meeting of nature and the human mind. Two such essays, ‘Meadow Thoughts’ and ‘On the Downs’, have been featured in other posts. Another example is ‘The Sun and the Brook’ (The Hills and the Vale), a short essay in which sky and earth, nature and the human senses, the real and the ideal, seem to merge into each other. The brook is the one near his childhood home at Coate and is lovingly remembered, not only as a clear, beautiful stream, but one whose banks and surrounding fields the young Jefferies knew intimately.
“The sun first sees the brook in the meadow where some roach swim under a bulging root of ash. Leaning against the tree, and looking down into the water, there is a picture of the sky. Its brightness hides the sandy floor of the stream as a picture conceals the wall where it hangs, but, as if the water cooled the rays, the eye can bear to gaze on the image of the sun. Over its circle thin threads of summer cloud are drawn; it is only the reflection, yet the sun seems closer seen in the brook, more to do with us, like the grass, and the tree, and the flowing stream. In the sky it is so far, it cannot be approached, nor even gazed at, so that by the very virtue and power of its own brilliance it forces us to ignore, and almost forget it. The summer days go on, and no one notices the sun. The sweet water slipping past the green flags, with every now and then a rushing sound of eager haste, receives the sky, and it becomes a part of the earth and of life. No one can see his own face without a glass; no one can sit down and deliberately think of the soul till it appears a visible thing. It eludes—the mind cannot grasp it. But hold a flower in the hand—a rose, this later honeysuckle, or this the first harebell—and in its beauty you can recognize your own soul reflected as the sun in the brook. For the soul finds itself in beautiful things.”
The scene is in late summer, “the days of the convolvulus, of ripening berry, and dropping nut. In the gateways, ears of wheat hang from the hawthorn boughs, which seized them from the passing load. The broad aftermath is without flowers; the flowers are gone to the uplands and the untilled wastes.” He reminds us of the earlier part of the summer and its “long drama” that proceeded the day described. Restrained emotion has a powerful presence in this essay. Jefferies does not indulge in crude romantic sentiment and metaphor; instead, he maintains the tension between physical nature and the higher aspiration that it seems to symbolize.
“The long, loving touch of the sun has left some of its own mystic attraction in the brook. Resting here, and gazing down into it, thoughts and dreams come flowing as the water flows. Thoughts without words, mobile like the stream, nothing compact that can be grasped and stayed: dreams that slip silently as water slips through the fingers. The grass is not grass alone; the leaves of the ash above are not leaves only. From tree, and earth, and soft air moving, there comes an invisible touch which arranges the senses to its waves as the ripples of the lake set the sand in parallel lines. The grass sways and fans the reposing mind; the leaves sway and stroke it, till it can feel beyond itself and with them, using each grass blade, each leaf, to abstract life from earth and ether. These then become new organs, fresh nerves and veins running afar out into the field, along the winding brook, up through the leaves, bringing a larger existence. The arms of the mind open wide to the broad sky.
Some sense of the meaning of the grass, and leaves of the tree, and sweet waters hovers on the confines of thought, and seems ready to be resolved into definite form. There is a meaning in these things, a meaning in all that exists, and it comes near to declare itself. Not yet, not fully, nor in such shape that it may be formulated—if ever it will be—but sufficiently so to leave, as it were, an unwritten impression that will remain when the glamour is gone, and grass is but grass, and a tree a tree.”
His deep love of a place, of home, of a simple stream in a field, has led us into profound and beautiful possibilities for the imagination. The sun makes the day and Jefferies, as if taking on the role of the sun, has re-made it for us. Perhaps we could see this as a process of ‘imaginative realism’. Nature always appeared as intensely real to Jefferies, a fact that distinguishes him from eastern mysticism which tends to view the physical world as illusory. The complete immersion of Jefferies’ senses and mind in the scene has created a subtle union of man and nature. This was not really the product of one day only; he had wandered the bank of the brook day after day, summer after summer, until the water, leaves and grasses became part of his being. Jefferies was always able to think outside the span of his lifetime. We can be sure that he wanted more people in the future to share such an experience. He writes in ‘Hours of Spring’, near the end of his life, “I hope that those to come in future years may see wider and enjoy fuller than I have done; and so much the more gladly would I do all that I could to enlarge the life that shall be then.”