by Rebecca Welshman
While many of Jefferies’ books can be read and enjoyed for their countryside observations, with their hidden depths and breathtaking description, there is another side to his works which is often overlooked. Jefferies celebrated the sun – he sought to bring more light into the world and to illuminate and improve the human condition. In a rare early poem, Jefferies declares his ambition to help alleviate suffering and loosen the grip of superstition that he believed kept the mind locked in place:
“Full of thoughts of past and future
Took I there a solemn vow —
Darkness I will overthrow!
List, my voice like clarion sounding,
Dreading neither priest nor ban,
He alone is abbot — hero,
Who can bless his fellow man” – ‘The Grave of the Last Abbot’ (1869)
Jefferies’ ‘solemn vow’ to ‘overthrow’ the darkness that he perceived to shroud existence eventually took the form of The Story of My Heart – a book charged with images of light, fire and burning. The Story of My Heart is not only a record of spiritual development but a chronology of the struggle between light and dark in the soul. Jefferies refers to ‘dust’, ‘infernal darkness’, the ‘void’ of space, and to personal loneliness and despair. In his account of difficult former years, he recalls the isolation and sense of crisis he experienced:
“years bringing much suffering, grinding the very life out; new troubles, renewed insults, loss of what hard labour had earned, the bitter question: Is it not better to leap into the sea?” – The Story of My Heart
Jefferies did not have any easy life. After falling ill in his late teens he never regained full health. He died aged 38 from Tuberculosis – a particular form that gave him unbearable pain in his spine and stomach, and resulted in partial paralysis. He struggled to make a living as a writer, with most of the proceeds of his successful works going on medical bills. At the time he died, and through no fault of his own, he left his young family almost entirely destitute. And yet, during his illness and in the year of his death – 1887 – he produced some of his most movingly beautiful works.
Through all, Jefferies’ desire to express beauty endured and grew stronger. In ‘The Pageant of Summer’ the beauty and movement of the season unfolds in his heart. An unseen but deeply felt presence dwells in the summer fields and connects him with everything around:
“Straight go the white petals to the heart; straight the mind’s glance goes back to how many other pageants of summer in old times! When perchance the sunny days were even more sunny; when the stilly oaks were full of mystery, lurking like the Druid’s mistletoe in the midst of their mighty branches. A glamour in the heart came back to it again from every flower; as the sunshine was reflected from them, so the feeling in the heart returned tenfold. To the dreamy summer haze, love gave a deep enchantment, the colours were fairer, the blue more lovely in the lucid sky. Each leaf finer, and the gross earth enamelled beneath the feet. A sweet breath on the air, a soft warm hand in the touch of the sunshine, a glance in the gleam of the rippled waters, a whisper in the dance of the shadows. The ethereal haze lifted the heavy oaks and they were buoyant on the mead, the rugged bark was chastened and no longer rough, each slender flower beneath them again refined. There was a presence everywhere, though unseen, on the open hills, and not shut out under the dark pines. Dear were the June roses then because for another gathered. Yet even dearer now with so many years as it were upon the petals; all the days that have been before, all the heart-throbs, all our hopes lie in this opened bud. Let not the eyes grow dim, look not back but forward; the soul must uphold itself like the sun. Let us labour to make the heart grow larger as we become older, as the spreading oak gives more shelter. That we could but take to the soul some of the greatness and the beauty of the summer!”
Like the flowers of summer that seek the sun, the soul ‘must uphold itself’, even through the darkest times. Hope lies in the open bud of the future. Similar messages can be found in many of Jefferies’ later writings. In ‘Walks in the Wheatfields’, he recalls seeing a fox hunt passing through a field on a winter’s day. The scene is barren and bleak, but for the blades of young wheat which push through the soil. In these tiny shoots Jefferies finds a message of strength and resilience for the future:
“the foxhounds carry a bee-line straight from hedge to hedge, and after them come the hoofs, prospecting deeply into the earth, dashing down fibre and blade, crunching up the tender wheat and battering it to pieces. It will rise again all the fresher and stronger, for there is something human in wheat, and the more it is trampled on the better it grows. Despots grind half the human race, and despots stronger than man–plague, pestilence, and famine–grind the whole; and yet the world increases, and the green wheat of the human heart is not to be trampled out.”