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

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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.”

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2 thoughts on “‘On the Downs’ (selected & introduced by Simon Coleman)

  1. Jefferies really captures the joy of being out on the high ground here. The height above sea level stirs an imagination within our soul, yet it is the components of this wide scene that tingle the emotions of the soul. I love high places in bad weather, the exhilaration of being at one with the elements as they caress the senses is more powerful than any planned event. Jefferies essays are a master-class in connection with the environment.

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  2. Yes I chose this one – because of the great sense of freedom…and yearning for real knowledge. One of the first of his that I read.

    Simon C.

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