Pilgrimage to the Sea

by Simon Coleman

August September 2013 Pembrokeshire holiday 119

Photo by Rebecca Welshman

In Chapter 6 of his 1883 autobiography, The Story of My Heart, Jefferies describes a time when he experienced a powerful yearning to be by the sea. In the following passages he describes one of the several ‘pilgrimages’ which are a highlight of the first part of the book. His first sight of the sea in childhood seems to have had a magnetic effect upon him, but all four elements of nature are prominent in his work. Here they appear together, intensifying his ‘inexpressible desire’, or ‘prayer’, for a larger life of body and soul. Jefferies is not merely celebrating the elements; he is finding renewal at the very sources of life. His journey to the Sussex coast is poorly planned and full of frustration…

“But I found the sea at last; I walked beside it in a trance away from the houses out into the wheat. The ripe corn stood up to the beach, the waves on one side of the shingle, and the yellow wheat on the other.

There, alone, I went down to the sea. I stood where the foam came to my feet, and looked out over the sunlit waters. The great earth bearing the richness of the harvest, and its hills golden with corn, was at my back; its strength and firmness under me. The great sun shone above, the wide sea was before me, the wind came sweet and strong from the waves. The life of the earth and the sea, the glow of the sun filled me; I touched the surge with my hand, I lifted my face to the sun, I opened my lips to the wind. I prayed aloud in the roar of the waves—my soul was strong as the sea and prayed with the sea’s might. Give me fulness of life like to the sea and the sun, to the earth and the air; give me fulness of physical life, mind equal and beyond their fulness; give me a greatness and perfection of soul higher than all things; give me my inexpressible desire which swells in me like a tide—give it to me with all the force of the sea.

Then I rested, sitting by the wheat; the bank of beach was between me and the sea, but the waves beat against it; the sea was there, the sea was present and at hand. By the dry wheat I rested, I did not think, I was inhaling the richness of the sea, all the strength and depth of meaning of the sea and earth came to me again. I rubbed out some of the wheat in my hands, I took up a piece of clod and crumbled it in my fingers—it was a joy to touch it—I held my hand so that I could see the sunlight gleam on the slightly moist surface of the skin. The earth and sun were to me like my flesh and blood, and the air of the sea life.

With all the greater existence I drew from them I prayed for a bodily life equal to it, for a soul-life beyond my thought, for my inexpressible desire of more than I could shape even into idea. There was something higher than idea, invisible to thought as air to the eye; give me bodily life equal in fulness to the strength of earth, and sun, and sea; give me the soul-life of my desire. Once more I went down to the sea, touched it, and said farewell. So deep was the inhalation of this life that day, that it seemed to remain in me for years. This was a real pilgrimage.”

After a Fall of Snow, by Richard Jefferies

robin on fenceSource: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/66/9b/92/669b9251a793ca1ccad7683e7ea9005d.jpg

“In the winter twilight, after a fall of snow, it is difficult to find one’s way across the ploughed fields of the open plain, for it melts on the south of every furrow, leaving a white line where it has ledged on the northern side, till the furrows resemble an endless succession of waves of earth tipped with foam-flecks of snow. These are dazzling to the eyes, and there are few hedges or trees visible for guidance. Snow lingers sometimes for weeks on the northern slopes of the downs—where shallow dry dykes, used as landmarks, are filled with it: the dark mass of the hill is streaked like the black hull of a ship with its line of white paint. Field work during what the men call ‘the dark days afore Christmas’ is necessarily much restricted and they are driven to find some amusement for the long evenings—such as blowing out candles at the ale-house with muzzle-loader guns for wagers of liquor, the wind of the cap alone being sufficient for the purpose at a short distance.

The children never forget Saint Thomas’s Day, which ancient custom has consecrated to alms, and they wend their way from farmhouse to farmhouse throughout the parish; it is usual to keep to the parish, for some of the old local feeling still remains even in these cosmopolitan times. At Christmas sometimes the children sing carols, not with much success so far as melody goes, but otherwise successfully enough; for recollections of the past soften the hearts of the crustiest.

The young men for weeks previously have been practising for the mumming—a kind of rude drama requiring, it would seem, as much rehearsal beforehand as the plays at famous theatres. They dress in a fantastic manner, with masks and coloured ribbons; anything grotesque answers, for there is little attempt at dressing in character. They stroll round to each farmhouse in the parish, and enact the play in the kitchen or brewhouse; after which the whole company are refreshed with ale, and, receiving a few coins, go on to the next homestead. Mumming, however, has much deteriorated, even in the last fifteen or twenty years. On nights when the players were known to be coming, in addition to the farmer’s household and visitors at that season, the cottagers residing near used to assemble, so that there was quite an audience. Now it is a chance whether they come round or not.

A more popular pastime with the young men, and perhaps more profitable, is the formation of a brass band. They practise vigorously before Christmas, and sometimes attain considerable proficiency. At the proper season they visit the farms in the evening, and as the houses are far apart, so that only a few can be called at in the hours available after work, it takes them some time to perambulate the parish. So that for two or three weeks about the end of the old and the beginning of the new year, if one chances to be out at night, every now and then comes the unwonted note of a distant trumpet sounding over the fields. The custom has grown frequent of recent years, and these bands collect a good deal of money.

The ringers from the church come too, with their hand-bells and ring pleasant tunes—which, however, on bells are always plaintive—standing on the crisp frozen grass of the green before the window. They are well rewarded, for bells are great favourites with all country people.”

from Wild Life in a Southern County

The Story of the Wheat

by Simon Coleman


Source: http://www.travelization.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/summer-wheat-field-road-wallpapers-t.jpg

The ripening of the wheat was, for Jefferies, a central element in the story of the spring and summer. In the predominantly agricultural community of his youth, corn was merely a commodity, though a very valuable one. Jefferies, however, could see it with the eye of a poet. With his exceptional sensitivity to colour out of doors, he found joy in observing all the stages of the corn’s development. In Wildlife in a Southern County, he notes how quickly its subtle changes of colour appear and vanish. Each stage has its place in the process; each is recognised as a necessary part in an unfolding whole. And when the wind moves the stalks, a delicate play of hues is introduced.

In the following passages Jefferies moves the familiar process of the ripening wheat outside the usual context of agriculture and gently allows his imagination to enter into it. To him, this transformation has the character of art, and we sense that it is connected to greater, more universal, themes. He readily admits that he can’t find the words to capture the hue of the fully ripened wheat, so elusive is nature’s artistic genius.

“First green and succulent; then, presently, see a modest ear comes forth with promise of the future. By-and-by, when every stalk is tipped like a sceptre, the lower stalk leaves are still green, but the stems have a faint bluish tinge, and the ears are paling into yellow. Next the white pollen—the bloom—shows under the warm sunshine, and then the birds begin to grow busy among it. They perch on the stalk itself—it is at that time strong and stiff enough to uphold their weight, one on a stem—but not now for mischief. You may see the sparrow carry away with him caterpillars for his young upon the housetop hard by; later on, it is true, he will revel on the ripe grains.

Yesterday you came to the wheat and found it pale like this (it seems but twenty-four hours ago—it is really only a little longer); to-day, when you look again, lo! there is a fleeting yellow already on the ears. They have so quickly caught the hue of the bright sunshine pouring on them. Yet another day or two, and the faint fleeting yellow has become fixed and certain, as the colours are deepened by the great artist. Only when the wind blows and the ears bend in those places where the breeze takes most, it looks paler because the under part of the ear is shown and part of the stalk. Finally comes that rich hue for which no exact similitude exists. In it there is somewhat of the red of the orange, somewhat of the tint of bronze, and somewhat of the hue of maize; but these are poor words wherewith to render fixed a colour that plays over the surface of this yellow sea, for if you take one, two, or a dozen ears you shall not find it, but must look abroad, and let your gaze travel to and fro. Nor is every field alike; here are acres and acres more yellow, yonder a space whiter, beyond that a slope richly ruddy, according to the kind of seed that was sown.”

In a later essay titled ‘Wheatfields’ (Nature Near London), Jefferies brings the corn into the heart of summer’s story.

“The coming of the ears of wheat forms an era and a date, a fixed point in the story of the summer. It is then that, soon after dawn, the clear sky assumes the delicate and yet luscious purple which seems to shine through the usual atmosphere, as if its former blue became translucent and an inner and ethereal light of colour was shown. As the sun rises higher the brilliance of his rays overpowers it, and even at midsummer it is but rarely seen.

The morning sky is often, too, charged with saffron, or the blue is clear, but pale, and the sunrise might be watched for many mornings without the appearance of this exquisite hue. Once seen, it will ever be remembered. Upon the Downs in early autumn, as the vapours clear away, the same colour occasionally gleams from the narrow openings of blue sky. But at midsummer, above the opening wheatears, the heaven from the east to the zenith is flushed with it.”

At the end of the essay he also reminds us of the wheat’s individual story within the drama of the summer. And it’s one that ends happily.

“Hares raced about it in the spring, and even in the May sunshine might be seen rambling over the slopes. As it grew higher it hid the leverets and the partridge chicks. Toll has been taken by rook, and sparrow, and pigeon. Enemies, too, have assailed it; the daring couch invaded it, the bindweed climbed up the stalk, the storm rushed along and beat it down. Yet it triumphed, and to-day the full sheaves lean against each other.”

Women in the Fields and Nature’s Beauty

by Rebecca Welshman

the gleaners

‘The Gleaners’ by Jean-Francois Millet. Source: http://www.artistclon.com/images/201007/goods_img/37782_G_1278953004618.jpg

‘Women in the Field’ is a short article that Jefferies wrote for the Graphic newspaper in 1875. The piece is mainly concerned with the quality of life experienced by female agricultural labourers. The condition of the agricultural labourers was a popular subject in the newspapers of the time. The topic of women in the fields tended to fall by the wayside, however, in favour of arguments concerning wages, land reform, and the usurping of male labour by steam engines. Jefferies seeks to redress this balance by presenting a typical year in the life of a field labouring woman:

“Those who labour in the fields require no calendar, no carefully compiled book of reference to tell them when to sow and when to reap, to warn them of the flight of time. The flowers, blooming and fading, mark the months with unfailing regularity. When the sweet violet may be found in warm sheltered nooks, and the sleepy snake first crawls out from under the brown leaves, then it is time to gather the couch or roots after the plough, and to hoe the young turnips and swedes. This is the first work of the year for the agricultural women.”

Jefferies goes on to describe the arduous nature of this labour – walking over ploughed ridges and furrows in heavy nailed boots, stooping to collect the couch roots, the ‘cold clods of earth [that] numb the fingers’. In early spring, the winds can be raw, and the air temperature low – something, comments Jefferies, that may not cross the minds of many city readers as they scan the pages of the newspaper from the domestic comfort of their town houses. At the end of the labouring day, when the light is fading, the woman walks one or two miles home to her cottage where she prepares supper for her husband.

cottage imageSource: http://www.geodata.soton.ac.uk/newforest/public/resources/jude10.gif

As well as being difficult to carry out, labour is not always easy to find. This adds stress to an already over-strained system. Thus, the riches of spring which gradually unfold amongst the ‘rich fertile valleys’ are largely unheeded by the labouring woman:

“The woods are now carpeted with acres upon acres of the wild hyacincth, or blue bell, and far surpass in loveliness the most cultivated garden. The sheen of the rich deep blue shows like a lake of colour, in which the tall ash poles stand, and in the sunset each bell is tinged with purple. The nightingale sings in the hazel copse, or on the hawthorn bough, both day and night, and higher up, upon the downs, the skies are full of larks carolling at “Heaven’s gate”. But the poor woman hears them not. She has no memories of poetry; her mind can call up no beautiful thoughts to associate with the flower or the bird. She can sign her name in a scrawling hand, and she can spell through simple print …”


Although she may not be entirely receptive to the beauty of the natural world – ‘she cannot … appreciate or feel with, the beauty with which she is surrounded’ – there yet remains ‘some little instinctive yearning after a higher condition’. Jefferies refers to labourers’ love of yellow flowers – how they populate their cottage gardens with gilly flowers, single stock, and marigolds. The golden presence of these flowers in Jefferies’ narrative suggests to me something of value, to treasure. The labouring life, however, leaves little time, energy, or aptitude for the appreciation of natural beauty. As Jefferies continues:

“Now the small creeping convolvus with pink-streaked petals winds along the edge of the corn-field, and the beautiful “blue-bottle” lifts its head among the wheat and barley. At three o’clock in the morning the women rise to clean the cottage, and wash the linen, and at five set out for the harvest-field. Often they walk two miles carrying the baby, and then leave it in charge of a girl while they reap. The wheat is bent back with a curved stick held in the left hand called a “fagging-stick”, and the right hand chops with the sharp sickle against the straw. Through the blazing heat of the long summer day, till night, and sometimes under the pale light of the harvest moon this labour continues. Its effects are visible in the thin frame, the bony wrist, the skinny arm showing the sinews, the rounded shoulders and stoop, the wrinkles and lines upon the sunburnt faces. Many women labour thus while still suckling their infants.”

Jefferies concludes by lamenting the lack of life developing opportunities available to female labourers:

“Their labour is too hard, and in too exposed places; and yet they cannot get sufficient of it, for machinery has taken their employment away. From earliest childhood they are injured to the coarse ways and rough talk of rude men … they dwell among the flowers, but the flowers are not for them.”

Jefferies suggests that one remedy would be for an organisation to be set up by ladies in the town and country, to offer situations for young school leavers as domestic servants. This would offer a kinder and healthier alternative to the typical life of women who work the fields. The article thus implicitly raises the question: if people (in this case women) are without the basic human necessities of comfort, warmth, rest, and enough food, how can the spiritual aspects of their lives ever be given a chance to develop? It was unjust, and Jefferies sought to effect change.

Bird-life of the Orchard

Rummer's Lane Orchard 010 small

By Simon Coleman

The old orchard next to the farmhouse of his childhood was one of Jefferies’ favourite places for observing wildlife. He was distressed at the disappearance of many such orchards, as he explains in the essay ‘Nature and Eternity’ (The Hills and the Vale): “Foolish fashion has banished the orchard from the mansion—the orchard which Homer tells us kings once valued as part of their demesne—and has substituted curious evergreens to which the birds do not take readily.” He goes on to describe the abundant and varied bird-life of his own orchard. Despite the close proximity of human habitation, it is ‘a city of the birds and beasts’ where there is continual coming and going.

“As there are wide plains even in thickly populated England where man has built no populous city, so in bird-life there are fields and woods almost deserted by the songsters, who at the same time congregate thickly in a few favourite resorts, where experience gathered in slow time has shown them they need fear nothing from human beings. Such a place, such a city of the birds and beasts, is this old orchard. The bold and handsome bullfinch builds in the low hawthorn hedge which bounds it upon one side. In the walls of the arbour formed of thick ivy and flowering creepers, the robin and thrush hide their nests. On the topmost branches of the tall pear-trees the swallows rest and twitter. The noble blackbird, with full black eye, pecks at the decaying apples upon the sward, and takes no heed of a footstep. Sometimes the loving pair of squirrels who dwell in the fir-copse at the end of the meadow find their way down the hedges—staying at each tree as an inn by the road—into the orchard, and play their fantastic tricks upon the apple-boughs. The flycatchers perch on a branch clear from the tree, and dart at the passing flies. Merriest of all, the tomtits chatter and scold, hanging under the twigs, head downwards, and then away to their nest in the crumbling stone wall which encloses one side of the orchard. They have worked their way by a cranny deep into the thick wall. On the other side runs the king’s highway, and ever and anon the teams go by, making music with their bells. One day a whole nation of martins savagely attacked this wall. Pressure of population probably had compelled them to emigrate from the sand quarry, and the chinks in the wall pleased their eyes. Five-and-thirty brown little birds went to work like miners at twelve or fourteen holes, tapping at the mortar with their bills, scratching out small fragments of stone, twittering and talking all the time, and there undoubtedly they would have founded a colony had not the jingling teams and now and then a barking dog disturbed them. Resting on the bench and leaning back against an apple-tree, it is easy to watch the eager starlings on the chimney-top, and see them tear out the straw of the thatch to form their holes. They are all orators born. They live in a democracy, and fluency of speech leads the populace. Perched on the edge of the chimney, his bronze-tinted wings flapping against his side to give greater emphasis—as a preacher moves his hands—the starling pours forth a flood of eloquence, now rising to screaming-pitch, now modulating his tones to soft persuasion, now descending to deep, low, complaining, regretful sounds—a speech without words—addressed to a dozen birds gravely listening on the ash-tree yonder. He is begging them to come with him to a meadow where food is abundant.”

In the characteristic style of Jefferies’ later works, the rich description leads on to some more profound musings about both nature and the human condition. As ever, nature was infinitely more to him than a place of peaceful recreation. His writing expresses an undying sympathy for all the earth’s life and a deep reverence for nature’s sacred and mysterious powers.

“It is only while in a dreamy, slumbrous, half-mesmerized state that nature’s ancient papyrus roll can be read—only when the mind is at rest, separated from care and labour; when the body is at ease, luxuriating in warmth and delicious languor; when the soul is in accord and sympathy with the sunlight, with the leaf, with the slender blades of grass, and can feel with the tiniest insect which climbs up them as up a mighty tree. As the genius of the great musicians, without an articulated word or printed letter, can carry with it all the emotions, so now, lying prone upon the earth in the shadow, with quiescent will, listening, thoughts and feelings rise respondent to the sunbeams, to the leaf, the very blade of grass. Resting the head upon the hand, gazing down upon the ground, the strange and marvellous inner sight of the mind penetrates the solid earth, grasps in part the mystery of its vast extension upon either side, bearing its majestic mountains, its deep forests, its grand oceans, and almost feels the life which in ten thousand thousand forms revels upon its surface. Returning upon itself, the mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder—akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself. How grand and holy is this life! how sacred the temple which contains it!”

The Benediction of the Light, by Richard Jefferies

“I saw a brown and dry oak leaf caught in the bushes in December. A sunbeam lit on it and it glowed among the dark branches. Immediately my thought responded and my mind too, received the light. Touching the brown leaf, brittle to the fingers, I gathered the ray from it. In a cold and cheerless upper room the afternoon and sinking sun cast a beam upon the wall. I sat a little while where it reached me, and it sank into me. I saw the sun level on to the fir-tree tops. There was a low sound from them as the air passed; it seemed as if I was looking to the sun. In the morning I can in the winter just see the sun arise; if it is cloudy or not, my first glance is there. I pause on the staircase because the window faces the south and the sunshine falls through it. The thought of the sunshine, even in winter, is beauty.”

The Blue Doors at the Old House

Rebecca Welshman

round about coate

In The Old House at Coate, a collection of essays published after his lifetime, Jefferies fondly describes the old Wiltshire farmhouse and gardens where he was born. Two large blue doors, set within the enclosing stone wall, formed the main entrance. Jefferies recalls listening to them swing open and shut ‘from dawn to midnight’ with the activity of the mowers, milkers, and village people visiting the farm pump for water. The doors, although a manmade creation crafted by artificial means, have a place in the natural environment. Swallows fly over and under them, and robins and wrens come to the decaying bars looking for insects:

“The tiny brown wrens appear to have their regular rounds, visiting the same spot day after day and always singing on the same perches. One used to sing on the top of these doors, and then passing on, first to the eaves of the cowshed, next to a heap of stones, where he slipped through the interstices, then to some logs piled against the wall, sang again when he reached the woodpile, perched on the topmost faggot.
The eave swallows dropping from their nests under the thatch and gaining impetus from the downward slide seemed as if they must strike the broad doors, but suddenly rising with sleight-of-wing passed over upwards into the buoyant air.”

Pied wagtails would visit the farm through the blue doors too – as Jefferies observes, ‘the whole circuit of the place was open to them, yet they generally entered here.’ Jefferies describes a little stretch of path, just in front of the doors, enclosed by the walls of the farmhouse and cattle sheds, which ‘made a pleasant ambulatory…a kind of hollow way’. In the chill winds of early spring he would walk up and down, feeling, thinking, and observing as the midday sun ‘filled the place with light and warmth’.

In winter, although the profusion of wildlife would be absent, there still remained activity to be observed. When I was in the garden of the farmhouse the other afternoon, standing just behind the flanking wall of the former cattle shed, this passage from The Old House at Coate came to mind:

“In December, walking to and fro the roadway, from the blue doors to the walnut tree at the entrance to the meadow, as the afternoon drew on to four o’clock the sparrows began to come to the thick ivy around the fir tree in the corner of the wall. They came, too, to the ivy about the gable of the low over the window … the mass of leaves sheltered them like a cloak. The wrens went to the hayricks under the eaves of the thatch, to the holes the sparrows had made in the eaves of the sheds. Sometimes, in hard frost, the blackbirds came there, too – they could not find warmth in the hedges – and the sky, as the dusk deepened, was left to the wild fowl.”

coate gardens in progress

Gardens in progress: the old rickyard (the place where hay was once stored) next to the farmhouse. Found hidden amongst a rambling patch of brambles, is what we believe to be one of the original smaller blue doors from the gardens.

Pictured below are some of the Museum Trustees in the area that in Jefferies’ time was the rickyard, and which is in the process of being restored. The layer of turf that once covered the area has been dug away to expose the cobbled floors, and a series of vegetable plots have been constructed.

coate trustees in december

Jefferies saw the Blue Doors as a threshold that contained the farm’s spirit of place, but which also promised to lead to the exciting, unknown world beyond. Today, although the blue doors no longer exist, and have been replaced by wooden gates, the entrance to the farm continues to hold meaning. Jefferies can be considered one of the founders of the modern nature connection movement – he wrote with his senses and mind wide open, with the aim of helping others to experience the treasures of the natural world. Part of our work in taking care of and rejuvenating his birthplace and museum is to preserve its spirit of place – to welcome visitors to partake and enjoy this timeless environment, and to take Jefferies’ message out into the wider world.

coate the hollow wayThe entrance to Coate Farm. Photo by Tony Shaw



By Simon Coleman

YellowhammerPhoto by Andy Bright, Morston Downs, Norfolk, England, June 2002 (www.birdforum.net)

In one of his early ‘country books’, Wild Life in a Southern County, Jefferies demonstrates his fascination with all types of bird and animal life. The rich bird life of his Wiltshire homeland always claimed a fair share of his attention. A common bird, the yellowhammer, is here given an attractive, though largely factual, description.

“The colour of the yellowhammer appears brighter in spring and early summer: the bird is aglow with a beautiful and brilliant yet soft yellow, pleasantly shaded with brown. He perches on the upper boughs of the hawthorn or on a rail, coming up from the corn as if to look around him—for he feeds chiefly on the ground—and uttering two or three short notes. His plumage gives a life and tint to the hedge, contrasting so brightly with the vegetation and with other birds. His song is but a few bars repeated, yet it has a pleasing and soothing effect in the drowsy warmth of summer. Yellowhammers haunt the cornfields principally, though they are not absent from the meadows.”

In his later essay, “The Pageant of Summer”, the yellowhammer contributes to the day-long chorus of birdsong in the fields. He describes the bird as “the most persistent individually” but considers the blackbirds to be “the masters of the fields.”

“Without the violet all the bluebells and cowslips could not make a spring, and without the blackbird even the nightingale would be but half welcome. It is not yet noon, these songs have been ceaseless since dawn; this evening, after the yellowhammer has sung the sun down, when the moon rises and the faint stars appear, still the cuckoo will call, and the grasshopper lark, the landrail’s “crake, crake” will echo from the mound, a warbler or a blackcap will utter his notes, and even at the darkest of the summer night the swallows will hardly sleep in their nests.”

From the above two quotes you would not think that the yellowhammer made a special impression on Jefferies, with so many delicious sounds to listen to the whole length of the spring and summer. However, in a still later essay, “Wildflowers”, the yellowhammer suddenly becomes prominent in some deep and moving reminiscences of his youth.

“The greenfinches came to the fallen swathe so near to us they seemed to have no fear; but I remember the yellowhammers most, whose colour, like that of the wild flowers and the sky, has never faded from my memory. The greenfinches sank into the fallen swathe, the loose grass gave under their weight and let them bathe in flowers.
One yellowhammer sat on a branch of ash the livelong morning, still singing in the sun; his bright head, his clean bright yellow, gaudy as Spain, was drawn like a brush charged heavily with colour across the retina, painting it deeply, for there on the eye’s memory it endures, though that was boyhood and this is manhood, still unchanged…. This one yellowhammer still sits on the ash branch in Stewart’s Mash over the sward, singing in the sun, his feathers freshly wet with colour, the same sun-song, and will sing to me so long as the heart shall beat.”

So, after all, the yellowhammer has an important place in the vast tapestry of his childhood memory. This piece of reminiscence can perhaps be likened to how Jefferies recalled seeing sunspots, again after the lapse of a long period of time: “if I could only get back those moments they would be to me more precious than gold.” (See Rebecca’s earlier blog post on Sun Spots).

‘Nature in the Louvre’


Nature in the Louvre

An essay by Richard Jefferies, chosen and discussed by Simon Coleman

Jefferies’ writing is littered with references to Classical Greece: we find them in novels, essays and his autobiography. Homer’s hero Odysseus was a continual source of inspiration to him, while Plato and other philosophers furnished his mind with material for true thought. In their human sculpture the Greeks’ genius for combining realism with a serene, almost ‘divine’, quality had a magnetic effect on Jefferies’ imagination. His love of Greek aesthetics is demonstrated in a remarkable essay, ‘Nature in the Louvre’ (Field and Hedgerow). On a rare trip abroad Jefferies chanced upon a sculpture in the Greek galleries of the Louvre that at once awakened his imagination. This was the ‘Venus Accroupie’, or ‘Crouching Venus’, a work that so powerfully expressed Jefferies’ sense of the ideal human life that the much more celebrated works in the Museum appeared as mere polished conventions. They were not true to life. The Accroupie, however, being completely naturalistic in form and pose, casts a spell over Jefferies. The female figure is stooping to allow a child to climb on to her back. This is revealed by presence of the tiny hand still clasping her back which is all that remains of the child. Jefferies describes his discovery of the statue:

“…in the centre of the gallery, was a statue in the sense in which I understand the word—the beautiful made tangible in human form. I said at once, ‘That is my statue. There lies all Paris for me; I shall find nothing further.’ I was then at least thirty yards distant, with the view partly broken, but it was impossible to doubt or question lines such as those. On a gradual approach the limbs become more defined, and the torso grows, and becomes more and more human—this is one of the remarkable circumstances connected with the statue. There is life in the wide hips, chest, and shoulders; so marvellous is the illusion that not only the parts that remain appear animated, but the imagination restores the missing and mutilated pieces, and the statue seems entire. I did not see that the hand was missing and the arms gone; the idea of form suggested by the existing portions was carried on over these, and filled the vacant places.
Going nearer, the large hips grow from stone to life, the deep folds of the lower torso have but this moment been formed as she stooped, and the impulse is to extend the hands to welcome this beautiful embodiment of loving kindness. There, in full existence, visible, tangible, seems to be all that the heart has imagined of the deepest and highest emotions.”

To Jefferies, such beauty is not a mental quality ascribed to things: it is a living principle or essence. The creative mind of the sculptor has communicated this magical ‘truth’ in his work and Jefferies recognises it immediately. It would appear that the minds, or perhaps the hearts, of the sculptor and Jefferies have met in this personification of perfect beauty. Jefferies’ heart sees its own reflection. The work exudes physical strength, vitality and the simple human love expressed by the moment of action it captures: the woman taking the child on her back. Jefferies describes his feelings during his succession of visits to view the statue. It has become a place of pilgrimage, and he was drawn there by the same indefinable impulse that led him to the hills, woods and streams in his youth. By his third visit he is able to gain more insight into his gradually unfolding experience:

“At a third visit it seemed to me that the statue had grown much more beautiful in the few days which had elapsed since I first saw it. Pondering upon the causes of this increasing interest, I began to see that one reason was because it recalled to my memory the loveliness of nature. Old days which I had spent wandering among deep meadows and by green woods came back to me. In such days the fancy had often occurred to me that, besides the loveliness of leaves and flowers, there must be some secret influence drawing me on as a hand might beckon. The light and colour suspended in the summer atmosphere, as colour is in stained but translucent glass, were to me always on the point of becoming tangible in some beautiful form. The hovering lines and shape never became sufficiently defined for me to know what form it could be, yet the colours and the light meant something which I was not able to fix. I was now sitting in a gallery of stone, with cold marbles, cold floors, cold light from the windows. Without there were only houses, the city of Paris—a city above all other cities farthest from woods and meads. Here, nevertheless, there came back to me this old thought born in the midst of flowers and wind-rustled leaves, and I saw that with it the statue before me was in concord. The living original of this work was the human impersonation of the secret influence which had beckoned me on in the forest and by running streams. She expressed in loveliness of form the colour and light of sunny days; she expressed the deep aspiring desire of the soul for the perfection of the frame in which it is encased, for the perfection of its own existence.”

This deepening of his awareness is now followed by the recognition of the human position within nature. It is somehow sad to know that the wonders of the earth have not been put here for our benefit: the leaves cannot love us. This knowledge, however, should help us to see the beauty of human life; the statue in front of him being its very embodiment.

“The sun rolls on in the far dome of heaven, and now day and now night sweeps with alternate bands over the surface of hill, and wood, and sea; the sea beats in endless waves, which first began to undulate a thousand thousand years ago, starting from the other rim of Time; the green leaves repeat the beauty that gladdened man in ancient days. But for themselves they are, and not for us. Their glory fills the mind with rapture but for a while, and it learns that they are, like carven idols, wholly careless and indifferent to our fate. Then is the valley incomplete, and the void sad! Its hills speak of death as well as of life, and we know that for man there is nothing on earth really but man; the human species owns and possesses nothing but its species. When I saw this I turned with threefold concentration of desire and love towards that expression of hope which is called beauty, such as is worked in marble here. For I think beauty is truthfully an expression of hope, and that is why it is so enthralling—because while the heart is absorbed in its contemplation, unconscious but powerful hope is filling the breast. So powerful is it as to banish for the time all care, and to make this life seem the life of the immortals.”

This extraordinary essay is one of the finest examples of Jefferies’ mature style. He superbly controls the tension between artistic sensibility and the ‘higher’ principle suggested by the artwork. There is also the need to communicate a more universal message to humanity as a whole. He concludes his pilgrimage with his fourth visit and calls for human efforts that extend far beyond conventional good works. Something is demanded by the heart; something real that answers to the truth of nature, and of our own nature.

“Returning the next morning, my thoughts went on, and found that this ideal of nature required of us something beyond good. The conception of moral good did not satisfy one while contemplating it. The highest form known to us at present is pure unselfishness, the doing of good, not for any reward, now or hereafter, nor for the completion of an imaginary scheme. This is the best we know. But how unsatisfactory! Filled with the aspirations called forth by the ideal before me, it appeared as if even the saving of life is a little work compared to what the heart would like to do….Though I cannot name the ideal good, it seems to me that it will be in some way closely associated with the ideal beauty of nature.”