Richard Jefferies and the Meaning of Light
by Simon Coleman
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.’