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

Source: http://www.athensguide.org

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

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