The Sun and the Brook

An Invisible Touch

by Simon Coleman

bed of stream

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.”

Sun-Spots under the Apple Tree at Coate


The works of Richard Jefferies offer some of the best and most consistent examples of connection with nature and place. In 1870, in the garden of the Wiltshire farmhouse where he was born, Jefferies observed some spots on the sun. Writing retrospectively, later in life, Jefferies recalls the experience:

“There was a great sun-spot at that time and every afternoon as the sun sank I used to sit facing the west under the russet apple tree waiting till the thin vapour on the horizon absorbed the glow of light so that I could see it. The great black speck with a smaller one near it became distinct upon the broad red disk, and I watched it till the sun went down …To me it was a wonderful and never-wearying spectacle, evening after evening as I watched it under the low boughs of the russet apple, the great fiery disk slowly dropping beyond the brook and the meadow, beyond the elms on the rise, beyond the distant hills. The green leaves over and the grass under the quiet rush of the brook, the evening song of the birds, the hushing hum of the bees at the hives set just there, I forgot all but these and the sun – by the spot I could touch out almost to it.
For centuries backwards perhaps no one with the naked eye had seen a sun-spot; for centuries to come no one might see them again; so that the moment of my existence in it seemed a link between the illimitable past and future; this moment made more vital, more fierce in its existence by the consciousness the sunspot gave of the long bygone and the endless to be.

Yet then I thought little of it, I did not value it, it was only one of the things I should see – hundreds more wonderful as life went on. It has not been so. I have never seen anything more wonderful than the things I saw then; never felt or thought like I used to in those youthful times. Nothing then was of any value; now if I could only get back those moments they would be to me more precious than gold.”

At the time, the sun spots sparked a series of commentaries in newspapers and magazines concerning their origin. Some believed the theory put forward by Maupertuis that the phenomena were caused by waste floating across the face of the sun. Others supported Lalande’s idea that the formations stood out from the surface but had come from within, and another theory explained them as meteoric stones, which eventually got absorbed by the sun. In his account Jefferies is not concerned with what the spots are, or how they were formed, but rather with the sort of luminous self-awareness that arises through their contemplation. The spot itself is a point of connection between the lone thinker and the magnitude of the wider universe; a mirror to the temporary condition of his life on earth. ‘The moment of [his] existence’ is realised through the enduring presence of the familiar natural surroundings in and beyond his own lifetime – the brook, the orchard, and the generations of wildlife. Jefferies uses language to locate himself – not simply in the environment of the garden, but – within the grander timescale of times past and future. The leaves ‘over’ the water and the grass ‘under’ suggest a microcosmic shape or form of containment, as does his own position ‘under’ the apple tree, near the hives which are ‘set just there’. The intimate experience of place conveys to the reader a deep and timeless sense of belonging, and implicitly suggests the worth of preserving natural beauty for future generations to enjoy.

The garden, with its apple trees and distant hills, still remains as part of the author’s birthplace at Coate on the outskirts of Swindon. It is run by a Trust and is open to the public:

‘On the Downs’ (selected & introduced by Simon Coleman)


Richard Jefferies’ essay ‘On the Downs’ (included in Edward Thomas’ 1909 collection The Hills and the Vale) powerfully expresses his belief in the infinite capacity of the human mind. He is not discussing the facts and conventional knowledge of our everyday experience, but the inner potential of the mind that knows and desires beauty. This dormant power is awakened by the heart, receiving through the senses the magical influence of nature. It escapes the ordinary definitions of language, belonging instead to another realm of thought. The routines of life tend to shut out this magical ‘other side’ of life, but in the outdoor world Jefferies finds the symbols which might help us grasp its reality.

“Light and colour, freedom and delicious air, give exquisite pleasure to the senses; but the heart searches deeper, and draws forth food for itself from sunshine, hills and sea. Desiring their beauty so deeply, the desire in a measure satisfies itself. It is a thirst which slakes itself to grow the stronger. It springs afresh from the light, from the blue hill-line yonder, from the gorse-flower at hand; to seize upon something that seems in them, which they symbolize and speak of; to take it away within oneself; to absorb it and feel conscious of it—a something that cannot be defined, but which corresponds with all that is highest, truest, and most ideal within the mind. It says, Hope and aspire, strive for largeness of thought. The wind blows, and declares that the mind has capacity for more than has ever yet been brought to it. The wind is wide, and blows not only here, but along the whole range of hills—the hills are not broad enough for it; nor is the sea—it crosses the ocean and spreads itself whither it will. Though invisible, it is material, and yet it knows no limit. As the wind to the fixed boulder lying deep in the sward, so is the immaterial mind to the wind. There is capacity in it for more than has ever yet been placed before it. No system, no philosophy yet organized in logical sequence satisfies the inmost depth—fills and fully occupies the well of thought. Read the system, and with the last word it is over—the mind passes on and requires more…

Stoop and touch the earth, and receive its influence; touch the flower, and feel its life; face the wind, and have its meaning; let the sunlight fall on the open hand as if you could hold it. Something may be grasped from them all, invisible yet strong. It is the sense of a wider existence—wider and higher. Illustrations drawn from material things (as they needs must be) are weak to convey such an idea. But much may be gathered indirectly by examining the powers of the mind—by the light thrown on it from physical things. Now, at this moment, the blue dome of the sky, immense as it is, is but a span to the soul. The eye-glance travels to the horizon in an instant—the soul-glance travels over all matter also in a moment…

Three-fourths of the mind still sleeps. That little atom of it needed to conduct the daily routine of the world is, indeed, often strained to the utmost. That small part of it, again, occasionally exercised in re-learning ancient thoughts, is scarcely half employed—small as it is. There is so much more capacity in the inner mind—a capacity of which but few even dream. Until favourable times and chances bring fresh materials for it, it is not conscious of itself. Light and freedom, colour, and delicious air—sunshine, blue hill lines, and flowers—give the heart to feel that there is so much more to be enjoyed of which we walk in ignorance.

Touching a flower, it seems as if some of this were absorbed from it; it flows from the flower like its perfume. The delicate odour of the violet cannot be written; it is material yet it cannot be expressed. So there is an immaterial influence flowing from it which escapes language. Touching the greensward, there is a feeling as if the great earth sent a mystic influence through the frame. From the sweet wind, too, it comes. The sunlight falls on the hand; the light remains without on the surface, but its influence enters the very being. This sense of absorbing something from earth, and flower, and sunlight is like hovering on the verge of a great truth. It is the consciousness that a great truth is there. Not that the flower and the wind know it, but that they stir unexplored depths in the mind. They are only material—the sun sinks, darkness covers the hills, and where is their beauty then? The feeling or thought which is excited by them resides in the mind, and the purport and drift of it is a wider existence—yet to be enjoyed on earth. Only to think of and imagine it is in itself a pleasure.

The red-tipped hawthorn buds are full of such a thought; the tender green of the leaf just born speaks it. The leaf does not come forth shapeless. Already, at its emergence, there are fine divisions at the edge, markings, and veins. It is wonderful from the commencement. A thought may be put in a line, yet require a life-time to understand in its completeness. The leaf was folded in the tiny red-tipped bud—now it has come forth how long must one ponder to fully appreciate it?

Those things which are symbolized by the leaf, the flower, the very touch of earth, have not yet been put before the mind in a definite form, and shaped so that they can be weighed. The mind is like a lens. A lens can examine nothing of itself, but no matter what is put before it, it will magnify it so that it can be searched into. So whatever is put before the mind in such form that it may be perceived, the mind will search into and examine. It is not that the mind is limited, and unable to understand; it is that the facts have not yet been placed in front of it. But because as yet these things are like the leaf folded in the bud, that is no reason why we should say they are beyond hope of comprehension.

Such a course inflicts the greatest moral injury on the world. Remaining content upon a mental level is fatal, saying to ourselves, ‘There is nothing more, this is our limit; we can go no farther,’ is the ruin of the mind, as much sleep is the ruin of the body. Looking back through history, it is evident that thought has forced itself out on the world by its own power and against an immense inertia. Thought has worked its way by dint of its own energy, and not because it was welcomed. So few care or hope for a higher mental level; the old terrace of mind will do; let us rest; be assured no higher terrace exists. Experience, however, from time to time has proved that higher terraces did exist. Without doubt there are others now. Somewhere behind the broad beam of life sweeping so beautifully through the combe, somewhere behind the flower, and in the wind. Yet to come up over the blue hill line, there are deeper, wider thoughts still. Always let us look higher, in spite of the narrowness of daily life. The little is so heavy that it needs a strong effort to escape it. The littleness of daily routine; the care felt and despised, the minutiæ which grow against our will, come in time to be heavier than lead. There should be some comfort in the thought that, however these may strain the mind, it is certain that hardly a fiftieth part of its real capacity is occupied with them. There is an immense power in it unused…

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 intense feeling caused by the sunshine, by the sky, by the flowers and distant sea is an increased consciousness of our own life. The stream of light—the rush of sweet wind—excites a deeper knowledge of the soul. An unutterable desire at once arises for more of this; let us receive more of the inner soul life which seeks and sighs for purest beauty. But the word beauty is poor to convey the feelings intended. Give us the thoughts which correspond with the feeling called up by the sky, the sea afar, and the flower at hand. Let us really be in ourselves the sunbeam which we use as an illustration…

From the blue hill lines, from the dark copses on the ridges, the shadows in the combes, from the apple-sweet wind and rising grasses, from the leaf issuing out of the bud to question the sun—there comes from all of these an influence which forces the heart to lift itself in earnest and purest desire.
The soul knows itself, and would live its own life.”

‘Meadow Thoughts’ Medicine’ by Simon Coleman

meadow thoughts
‘Meadow Thoughts’ (The Life of the Fields, 1884) is one of Jefferies’ finest philosophical-mystical essays. This great work, which has something of a symphonic quality, effortlessly combines many of his most familiar themes: the richness of summer life, the ‘teaching’ of nature, reminiscence of home, the human mind and heart, and powerful personal illumination. Jefferies begins by locating Coate Farm, secluded in deep countryside, 79 miles from London, the great centre of the world. The realisation of this distance, he says, “deepened the solitude to me. It made the silence more still; the shadows of the oaks yet slower in their movement; everything more earnest.” As he gradually brings the bird and insect life before our eyes, it almost feels that Nature herself is guiding his senses and mind. Nature is everywhere, and so too is his perception. The drifting white clouds are as important as the butterflies fluttering round the lime trees. Some labourers are seen for a moment as they pass a gateway. Everything has its place in the scene; his mind is attuned to the smallest sound or movement.
The scenes bring a sense of timelessness, a calm repose in the midst of the intense summer life proceeding in the garden and the nearby fields. Something magical is at work. “If a breeze rustled the boughs, if a greenfinch called, if the cart-mare in the meadow shook herself, making the earth and air tremble by her with the convulsion of her mighty muscles, these were not sounds, they were the silence itself. So sensitive to it as I was, in its turn it held me firmly, like the fabled spells of old time. The mere touch of a leaf was a talisman to bring me under the enchantment, so that I seemed to feel and know all that was proceeding among the grass-blades and in the bushes.” Jefferies’ prose is as compact and direct as Nature; there is no striving for effect. In its breaking up of ordinary time and its brilliant linking of Nature’s beauty and magic with real human possibilities, I suggest that the essay contains genuine potential for healing. Minds afflicted with our modern illnesses of depression, anxiety and nihilism could benefit from the soft, continuous ripples of pure beauty and light that Jefferies sends out. As he tells us, these scenes are much more than mere reminiscence: they are still living within his mind as he writes them. A strand of optimism runs all the way through ‘Meadow Thoughts’. Nature gives us an extravagant profusion of seeds and fruits; surely something of this natural principle of generosity can find its way into human society.
The magnificent concluding part of the essay serves to deepen its message still further, while taking us on a journey across the nearby valley. Somewhere on a hillside in a wilder and more remote piece of countryside, a path leads down to a hollow. There a crystal clear spring issues from a rock. While this is an outer place in relation to Coate farm, it is also, for Jefferies, an ‘inner’, secluded place. This is where he now finds perfect clarity and beauty of thought – a timeless truth. “Alone in the green-roofed cave, alone with the sunlight and the pure water, there was a sense of something more than these. The water was more to me than water, and the sun than sun. The gleaming rays on the water in my palm held me for a moment, the touch of the water gave me something from itself. A moment, and the gleam was gone, the water flowing away, but I had had them. Beside the physical water and physical light I had received from them their beauty; they had communicated to me this silent mystery. The pure and beautiful water, the pure, clear, and beautiful light, each had given me something of their truth.”
A moment of profound silence in the concentrated heart of Nature, he gives it to us freely to take away. Perhaps we can use it to unlock a place within ourselves that holds nothing but beauty.

Lost Civilisations and the “inner heart of man” Rebecca Welshman

snow on branches

In 1867, when the eighteen-year-old Richard Jefferies was thinking about writing his spiritual autobiography, an anonymous article titled ‘Snow’ in Sharpe’s London Magazine identified the hopeful promise of a new era in store for the soul:

“The snow has fallen under a cold temperature, and the flakes are perfectly crystallised; every shrub we pass bears wreaths which glitter as gorgeously as the nebula in Perseus; but in another hour of sunshine every one of those fragile outlines will disappear, and the white surface glitter no longer with stars, but with star-dust. On such a day, the universe seems to hold but three pure tints — blue, white, and green. The loveliness of the universe seems simplified to its last extreme of refined delicacy. That sensation we poor mortals have, of being just on the edge of infinite beauty, yet with always a lingering film between, never presses down more closely than on days like this. Everything seems perfectly prepared to satiate the soul with inexpressible felicity if we could only, by one infinitesimal step farther, reach the mood to dwell in it.”

The condition of ‘being just on the edge of infinite beauty’, with an obstructive ‘lingering film’ between the mind and what lay essentially beyond it, was akin to the ‘thin […] crust’ that Jefferies perceived between the artificiality of mankind and the natural world:

“There is but a thin, transparent sheet of brittle glass between the artificial man and the air, the light, the trees, and grass. So between him and the other innumerable organisms which live and breathe there is but a thin feeble crust of prejudice and social custom. Between him and those irresistible laws which keep the sun upon its course there is absolutely no bar whatever.” (‘Nature and Eternity’)

Jefferies’s desire to ‘burst through’ this crust — to allow the ‘li[f]e’ and ‘breath’ of natural things to enter and work through the body and mind — was sustained by beauty. Statuary offered a permanent representation of past beauty which would otherwise have been lost — what Jefferies described after seeing the Venus de Milo in Paris as ‘the beautiful made tangible in human form’. Contemplating statuary afforded time to formulate the human ideal into something more tangible than the fleeting glimpses he had experienced in the natural world. Sculpted from the earth’s raw material, these figures embodied wealth, enlightenment, healthy physique, and the warmth of the Greek climate, which encouraged his belief in the possibility of improvement for the soul:

“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 … These had thirsted of sun, and earth, and sea, and sky. Their shape spoke this thirst and desire like mine.” (The Story of My Heart)

Jefferies perceived that archaeology, as a process of retrieval, brought to light former conditions of life and furnished the mind with what Andrew Rossabi has termed ‘new saints and new ideals’. Discoveries of lost civilisations during the 1840s and 1850s set the scene for systematic explorations into what became known as ‘the old world’. One of the best known was the ancient civilisation of Lykia, now South West Turkey, discovered by Charles Fellows between 1838 and 1844. Fellows published his researches in 1839, and donated the worked marble, plaster casts, drawings and plans to the British Museum in 1843. The sculpture and architectural items caused a sensation when they were displayed and came to influence Victorian cemetery architecture in tombs of the Gothic revival.

parthenon sculptures


In The Story of My Heart, Jefferies uses the idea of discovering a new civilisation as a metaphor for his ambition to realise a ‘fourth idea’:

“Three ideas the Cavemen primeval wrested from the unknown, the night which is round us still in daylight — the existence of the soul, immortality, the deity. […] I desire to advance further, and to wrest a fourth, and even still more than a fourth, from the darkness of thought. I want more ideas of soul-life. I am certain that there are more yet to be found. A great life — an entire civilization — lies just outside the pale of common thought. Cities and countries, inhabitants, intelligences, culture — an entire civilization. Except by illustrations drawn from familiar things, there is no way of indicating a new idea. I do not mean actual cities, actual civilization. Such life is different from any yet imagined. A nexus of ideas exists of which nothing is known — a vast system of ideas — a cosmos of thought.”

The desire to ‘wrest’ truth ‘from the darkness of thought’ is analogous to the advancing knowledge of past civilisations which came to light through excavation. Archaeology and the advancement of knowledge — ‘Cities and countries, inhabitants, intelligences, culture’ — had provided Jefferies with the factual basis for what he termed the ‘first three ideas’, which he believed to be the soul, immortality, and the concept of a deity. The nebulous ‘fourth idea’ could only be given shape by ‘illustrations drawn from familiar things’. Evidence of early mankind’s spiritual relationship with the earth continued to emerge through discoveries of Bronze Age and Roman objects bearing sun and animal motifs. Yet the ancient Greek discoveries, with their own context of written history and philosophy, were perceived to be more relevant to the Victorian era, and their emphasis on the beauty of the human form suggested a more fundamentally human connection with the universe.

Although Jefferies recognised the sculptures to be a poor representation of their original state — ‘The statues are not, it is said, the best; broken too, and mutilated, and seen in a dull, commonplace light’ — it was more widely understood that part of their function had been to reflect the light with dazzling effect. Henry George Lidell recognised the word ‘marble’ to be derived from a Greek word meaning ‘shining stone’ and from the verb ‘to flash, sparkle, gleam’. Stone lions, which form part of the Lykian displays at the British Museum, have missing stones from their mouths. These are thought to have reflected and held the light, and would have flashed in the sun to catch the attention of passers-by. The fragmentary nature of the collections appealed to Jefferies, whose own vision was one of tantalising glimpses of a more complete and fulfilling human state. In imagining archaeology Jefferies found potential for the mind to explore new depths of the soul. In his novel The Scarlet Shawl (1874), in a digression about the ‘buried’ nature of the ‘inner heart’ of man, Jefferies uses the images of accumulated dust and the ‘buried city’ to symbolise the potential for humans to reconnect with their inner selves:
“Deep, deep down under the apparent man…there is a buried city, a city of the inner heart, lost and forgotten these many days. There, on the walls of the chambers of that city are pictures, fresh as they were painted by the alchemy of light in the long, long years gone by…. Yet deep as it lies hidden, heavy, and dull, and impenetrable as the crust may be, there shall come a time when the light of the sun, seen through a little crevice, shall pour in its brilliance upon them, and shall exhibit these chambers of imagery to the man walking in daytime. He shall awake, and shall walk through these chambers he builded in the olden times; and the pictures upon the walls shall pierce his soul.”

The image of the buried city was an implicit reference to Troy, the infamous city buried by sand, excavated by Schliemann in 1870. Unearthed from beneath the sands in Turkey, the extent of Troy and its treasures were revealed to the public in 1873, the year Jefferies was writing The Scarlet Shawl. Jefferies uses the image of temporarily lost treasures to suggest an imminent dawn of new life for the soul. The ‘fresh’ pictures, which appear as vibrant as the day they were painted, suggest that the potential for enlightenment – what Jefferies termed in 1875 ‘a beautiful springtime yet in store for the soul’ — lies dormant within all of us, just beneath the surface.

snowdrops stile Dorset

Richard Jefferies and the Meaning of Light, by Simon Coleman

Richard Jefferies and the Meaning of Light

by Simon Coleman

 smh penguin

I am at present living in Brighton-Hove, just a few streets from the house in Lorna Road, Hove, where Richard Jefferies lived between 1882 and 1884. Jefferies was very fond of Brighton, painting a vivid picture of the town and its life in the essay ‘Sunny Brighton’ (The Open Air). It was during his time at Lorna Road that he must have written his unique confessional autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883). A book that resulted from the white heat of his thought and life-passion over a period of 17 years, it is a record of his sunlit journey into the eternal mystery of existence.
On a clear day in Brighton, there is a powerful impression of light: light pouring down from the sky, reflected from the sea, glowing on the yellow and white Regency terraces. In The Story of My Heart, the words ‘light’ and ‘sunlight’ occur 84 times. While awakening Jefferies’ desire for the fullest ‘soul-life’, the sun enables him to feel back into the life of the distant past. He imagines the Egyptian king, Sesostris, ‘on the most ancient sands of the south’ being ‘conscious of himself and of the sun.’ He continues: ‘This sunlight linked me through the ages to that past consciousness.’ While he senses light to be the motive force and life-dispenser in the universe, he feels that his own inner light, his soul, must have far greater potential. How to employ this soul, an essence complete in itself, for the good of mankind as a whole, becomes the principle theme of the book.
Light as both a bringer of knowledge and a keeper of secrets is an idea that occurs in both the autobiography and elsewhere – for example, in the essay ‘The Dawn’ (The Hills and the Vale). Light, he believes, must possess hidden powers that have evaded our purely scientific investigations. The first light of dawn at his bedside ‘comes white and spectral in the silence, a finger pointed, a voice saying, “Even now you know nothing.”‘ In ‘The Pigeons at the British Museum’ (The Life of the Fields), Jefferies finds the books produced by our intellectual labours to be a pale shadow of the true knowledge found in the light and freedom of wild nature. The essay ‘Meadow Thoughts’ (The Life of the Fields) provides a fine example of Jefferies’ ability to capture a moment of personal illumination, this time by a spring in a rocky hollow. The water travels silently out of the dark earth into brilliant light. The elements of light and water communicate to him their ‘silent mystery’ and ‘truth’.
As well as its association with inner knowledge, light in Jefferies’ works is often identified with the love (Eros) principle. In ‘The Sun and the Brook’ (The Hills and the Vale), the brook receives the ‘long, loving touch of the sun’ – another example of his use of the conjunction of light and water. The character Felise in The Dewy Morn seems to be virtually a human expression of the love suggested by the sun. In the later novel After London, the lover of the protagonist, Felix, is named Aurora, after the dawn.
Connected to those above, there are other aspects of sun and light worship that can be observed in Jefferies’ writing. Solar deities from ancient religions and solar hero characters are further themes that can be explored, but they might be for another post. When considering Jefferies, we should take care to avoid placing him merely in the ‘nature writing’ category. Nature depends on the four elements, and these are more prominent in The Story of My Heart than birds, animals and flowers. I feel that the earth, air, fire/light, and water were somehow closer to his soul. And chief among these ‘four miracles’ was, for him, the light, especially the dawn that haunted his imagination from his teenage years at Coate. He says in ‘Sunny Brighton’: ‘Light is essential to life, like air; life is thought; light is as fresh air to the mind.’

A letter from Richard Jefferies to Oswald Crawfurd (1876) concerning Coate Farmhouse and Coate Water

Coate and May 048

Coate Farmhouse, the birthplace of Richard Jefferies (now the Richard Jefferies Museum)

Oswald Crawfurd edited the New Quarterly Magazine, to which Jefferies contributed papers on rural life during the 1870s. Crawfurd records being ‘immensely struck with the lucidity of these papers, the rare faculty of co-ordination possessed by the writer, and the strong, nervous, simple English which he had taught himself to use.’ In Jefferies’ writing, Crawfurd detected a ‘fresh, rhythmic note in style, the stamp of an original artist.’ A few years after Jefferies’ death, Crawfurd paid a visit to Coate Farm and found it, perhaps disappointingly so, to be ‘a plain, small, bare, rather poverty-stricken farm-house, by the roadside.’ He was more impressed by the ‘meadow land’ to the rear, through which a path led to the reservoir – ‘a picturesque and partly tree-embowered mere’. In 1898 Crawfurd published ‘Richard Jefferies: Field-Naturalist and Litterateur’ in The Idler, an illustrated magazine, in which he quoted several paragraphs of a letter Jefferies wrote to him in December 1876:

“I should certainly be pleased to meet you personally. My personal connection with farming is now almost at an end, though my father still retains his property at Coate. I find literature more congenial to my tastes, and have spent the greater part of the year near town. I expect I shall be there in the spring most of the time. I stay in Sydenham Park, at Shanklin Villa, where, if you should be in England, I should be glad to meet you. With respect to the Natural History papers, my principal ideas are these. While at home, having very little to do, I studied natural history from Nature – excuse the tautology. I used to take a gun for nominal occupation, and sit in the hedge for hours, noting the ways and habits even of moles and snails. I had my especial wasps-nest, and never was stung. The secret with all living creatures is – quiet. Be quiet, and you can form a connection, so to say, with everything, even with such a brute as the pike-fish. This went on for six or seven years – idle, you will say. Whether it was summer or winter, I would always find something to interest me, and, in time, extend these observations to the great Downs adjacent, which are literally teeming, so to say, with matter for thought. I own that the result has been a profound optimism – if one looks at Nature metaphysically. Since that pleasant time, which I still regret, I have corrected my notes and endeavoured to organise them by reading the best books I could find on such subjects, including geology. There is at Coate a reservoir – it is sixty years old, and looks quite as a lake – of some eighty acres of water. I think I could write a whole book on that great pond. I mapped it, and laid down the shallows and sand-banks, when I was a schoolboy, and I learnt how to manage a sailing boat on it. Even the mussels slowly crawling on the bottom, I believe, have taught me something. You can trace the action of the rain and frost and the waves on its banks, just as Lyell delineates the effect of the ocean on our coast line; of course, on a smaller scale, but the illustration is perfect. You can trace the action of the brook which feeds it – the sediment and sand carried down have formed shallows and banks, like the delta of a river. If the birds, that I and others have shot there, had been preserved – as now I wish they had been – they would form a little museum. My brother shot a brace of grebes there last week. The auk, the Northern diver, gulls of almost all varieties, come occasionally after storms. I should not attempt a laborious learned description, but rather choose a chatty style. I would endeavour to bring in some of the glamour – the magic of sunshine and green things and calm waters – if I could. It would give me much pleasure to write such articles for you”

Coate Reservoir, today part of Coate Water Country Park

Jefferies and Carisbrooke Castle, the Isle of Wight

Carisbrooke Castle

                                Carisbrooke Castle

The archaeologist Hodder M. Westropp comments that Britain has ‘several instances of … earth-ramparts’ which provide ‘evidence of the custom of that primitive period’, and cites the ‘most interesting’ example as Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Jefferies probably visited the Isle of Wight in 1874 when he stayed at Ventnor. Matthews and Trietel have suggested that this may have been his honeymoon destination after his marriage in July.

Although there is no definitive evidence that Jefferies visited Carisbrooke Castle — his earliest known literary notebook being 1876 — the castle’s position at the centre of the island and part of the capital town made it one of the best-known tourist attractions, and he probably would have visited it with his wife during their trip in 1874. However, an earlier reference to Carisbrooke Castle in ‘History of Swindon’ (1867–8) suggests that he might have visited the island in the late 1860s. The reference to Carisbrooke occurs in relation to Snap village in Wiltshire, ‘where there is a deep well, with a wheel made to revolve by a pony’. He adds a footnote — ‘Cf the well at Carisbrooke Castle’ — which refers to the extant well at the castle rotated by the plodding action of a donkey. The absence of a reference for this footnote, and the use of ‘Cf’, meaning ‘confer’, suggests that he may be alluding to his own knowledge of the Castle, rather than having taken the information from a secondary source. Furthermore, a visit to the Isle of Wight — particularly well-known for its wealth and diversity of archaeological sites — would fit into the chronology of his interests at this time. His research for his histories, published in the North Wilts Herald, reached its climax during the late 1860s and early 1870s in ‘History of Swindon’, ‘History of Malmesbury’, ‘History of Cirencester’, and A Memoir of the Goddards (1873). These texts featured tens of historical and archaeological sites, including castles, priories, stone circles, caves, monoliths, and churches, and the Isle of Wight would have been of particular interest to Jefferies.

Jefferies’s notebook entry concerning his visit of 1874 reads: ‘the intense love and beauty of nature — every grain of sand — I can see the grains at Ventnor now ’74 and the fragments of pebbles joy in each. But not in this the answer to the soul. A double feeling’. The Isle of Wight was a retreat not only for those seeking health remedies, but for writers, artists and aristocracy. Queen Victoria had a residence at Osborne House, and Ventnor itself was frequented by royalty from other countries who came to support the charitable body in charge of the Royal National Hospital for Consumption, built half a mile outside of Ventnor in 1869. The hospital had an illustrious patronage and ran fundraising events, including a biennial festival, supported by royalty, peerage, and local celebrities.
Full article: Rebecca Welshman. 2012. “Imagining Archaeology: Nature and Landscape in the work of Richard Jefferies (Part Two).” Richard Jefferies Society Journal 25: 14-30.

Image of Carisbrooke:

The Farmer in November (Hodge and His Masters, 1878)

“An aged man, coming out of an arable field into the lane, pauses to look back. He is shabbily clad, and there is more than one rent in his coat; yet it is a coat that has once been a good one, and of a superior cut to what a labourer would purchase. In the field the ploughman to whom he has been speaking has started his team again. A lad walks beside the horses, the iron creaks, and the ploughman holding the handles seems now to press upon them with his weight, and now to be himself bodily pulled along. A dull November cloud overspreads the sky, and misty skits of small rain sweep across the landscape. As the old man looks back from the gate, the chill breeze whistles through the boughs of the oak above him, tearing off the brown dry leaves, and shaking out the acorns to fall at his feet. It lifts his grey hair, and penetrates the threadbare coat. As he turns to go, something catches his eye on the ground, and from the mud in the gateway he picks up a cast horse-shoe. With the rusty iron in his hand he passes slowly down the lane, and, as he goes, the bitter wind drives the fallen leaves that have been lying beside the way rustling and dancing after him.”

Clausen painting:

Pevensey Castle

peven 2

In 1880 Jefferies visited Pevensey Castle in Sussex, where he had an experience that prompted him to write his spiritual autobiography The Story of My Heart (1883):

“It happened just afterwards that I went to Pevensey, and immediately the ancient wall swept my mind back seventeen hundred years to the eagle, the pilum, and the short sword. The grey stones, the thin red bricks laid by those whose eyes had seen Caesar’s Rome, lifted me out of the grasp of houselife, of modern civilization, of those minutiae which occupy the moment. The grey stone made me feel as if I had existed from then till now, so strongly did I enter into and see my own life as if reflected. My own existence was focussed back on me; I saw its joy, its unhappiness, its birth, its death, its possibilities among the infinite, above all its yearning Question. Why? Seeing it thus clearly, and lifted out of the moment by the force of seventeen centuries, I recognised the full mystery and the depth of things in the roots of the dry grass on the wall, in the green sea flowing near.”

In The Story of My Heart Jefferies dates this visit to Pevensey as 1880, and the location is noted by Miller and Matthews to be ‘symbolic’ in a similar way to London and the Wiltshire Downs. In his notes for The Story of My Heart Jefferies writes that he had burned all previous attempts ‘in anger or despair’, but in 1880, after visiting Pevensey Castle, he made notes which he kept and from which developed the finished manuscript. In the book he describes his thoughts and feelings on entering the site and being surrounded by the Roman wall:

“The mystery and the possibilities are not in the roots of the grass, nor is the depth of things in the sea; they are in my existence, in my soul. The marvel of existence, almost the terror of it, was flung on me with crushing force by the sea, the sun shining, the distant hills. With all their ponderous weight they made me feel myself: all the time, all the centuries made me feel myself this moment a hundred-fold. I determined that I would endeavour to write what I had so long thought of, and the same evening put down one sentence. There the sentence remained two years. I tried to carry it on; I hesitated because I could not express it: nor can I now, though in desperation I am throwing these rude stones of thought together, rude as those of the ancient wall.”

When Jefferies was conceiving the book in the 1870s, James Fergusson had just published Rude Stone Monuments (1872), which quickly became a popular book on megalithic culture. Ferguson calls for megalithic structures to be recognised as belonging to a ‘style of architecture […] like Gothic, Grecian, Egyptian, Buddhist, or any other’, and highlights their cultural and anthropological significance. The concept of prehistoric, or ‘rude stone’ monuments being ‘thrown up’ or ‘thrown’ together was frequently used in archaeological reports to describe the process of their construction, and is used by Thomas Hardy in his novel Two on a Tower (1882). The defensive purpose of the great walls of Roman Britain, which drew the attention of historians, artists, writers and others in the nineteenth century, appeared to have held a similar fascination for Jefferies. The wall at Pevensey was not just defensive, but clearly marked a territory from the time when Anderida (the Roman name for Pevensey) had once been a town. Throughout history, Pevensey was the site of struggle and capture. Knowledge of the long sieges, starving inhabitants for weeks at a time, caught the imagination of poets and authors. For Jefferies, who borrowed from the Romantic tradition of celebrating heroes and their conquering prowess, the historical fight for freedom translated into a fight for liberty in expression; a personal fight to free the mind from the oppression of engrained social, political and spiritual structures and discover new territory.

Taken from Rebecca Welshman, 2013. “Imagining Archaeology: Nature and Landscape in the late Nineteenth Century.” PhD diss., University of Exeter.