In his autobiography, The Story of My Heart, Richard Jefferies relates some of his moving and profound experiences in the natural world. Of one such experience he writes:
“The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky drew my soul towards it, and there it rested, for pure colour is rest of heart.”
Interestingly, a similar idea occurred to the great 17th century Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho:
“A flower unknown
To bird and butterfly –
The sky of autumn.”
So often in his writing Jefferies celebrates colour in nature, whether it’s the cowslips and violets of the field or the fresh green of the beeches. It was his heart that received their pure and delicate hues and which “opened wide as the broad, broad earth.” “Rest of heart” was a state which allowed him to experience a wider and deeper sense of being. The condition of gratitude for merely being alive on this earth also pervades his writing. This calmness of heart could perhaps open up possibilities for creating more ‘natural’ patterns of thought and feeling in the world, as opposed to the ‘goal-directed’ patterns that are so dominant at present.
We in the West tend to equate the heart with the seat of the emotions only and separate it from the ‘rational’ mind. In eastern traditions, however, the heart is more than this: it is a whole reality which, in its true state, contains the mind. It is critical in bringing balance and structure to life. Attempting to realise the nature of the heart would be a genuine spiritual journey. In today’s increasingly excitable and sensation-driven society, it is not easy to bring a sense of depth and balance to life. To achieve this, the presence of the heart is necessary.
Richard Jefferies’ heart led him to the fields and woods, to the banks of clear streams where the sunlight sparkled and the breeze rustled the leaves above. He didn’t go to lengths to plan out his days – he simply responded to a natural instinct to seek beauty in the open air,
“…to drink deeply once more at the fresh fountains of life. An inspiration—a long deep breath of the pure air of thought—could alone give health to the heart.”
The above quote is from the first paragraph of The Story of My Heart. He immediately links thought to the heart. Natural thought is what he seeks: thought which arises from sensitive contact with nature, not the type that is concerned with information, conventional learning, projects, concepts and all the minutiae of daily life. In the essay ‘On the Downs’, he writes:
“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.”
The heart is the key to unlocking this almost limitless potential of the ‘inner mind’, but it has to awaken to it.
“By looking at this blue hill line this dormant power within the mind becomes partly visible; the heart wakes up to it.”
Returning to the autobiography, we can also find examples of Jefferies seeking this natural, ‘pure’ thought from the elements of nature, or any particular one of them:
“There was a secluded spring to which I sometimes went to drink the pure water, lifting it in the hollow of my hand. Drinking the lucid water, clear as light itself in solution, I absorbed the beauty and purity of it. I drank the thought of the element…”
The heart is where this desire comes from: more precisely, perhaps, it is itself the desire. But all this feeling for nature and its beauty would, of course, be futile if the heart were not also capable of pure love and sympathy for other human beings. Jefferies is as interested in the happiness of the human race and the realisation of love as anyone who has ever put pen to paper.
“I hope succeeding generations will be able to be ideal. I hope that nine-tenths of their time will be leisure time; that they may enjoy their days, and the earth, and the beauty of this beautiful world; that they may rest by the sea and dream; that they may dance and sing, and eat and drink. I will work towards that end with all my heart.”
Most of the second half of the book is devoted to hopes for a more fulfilled human life: i.e., the development of a stronger, healthier body and the expansion of the mind to its full potential. This would be a natural consequence of an awakened heart, conscious of the ideal life which he terms ‘soul-life’. He saw his writing as work towards that more beautiful existence: it was a labour not merely of love, but of heart. In his essay, ‘The Pageant of Summer’, Jefferies’ philosophy of the beautiful life attains possibly its most complete expression.
“Steeped in flower and pollen to the music of bees and birds, the stream of the atmosphere became a living thing. It was life to breathe it, for the air itself was life. The strength of the earth went up through the leaves into the wind. Fed thus on the food of the Immortals, the heart opened to the width and depth of the summer—to the broad horizon afar, down to the minutest creature in the grass, up to the highest swallow.”
This opening of the heart to bring about a broader feeling for all living things has echoes of Buddhism. Further on in the essay comes an experience of greater depth. The imaginative power of the heart suddenly bursts into the open when he sees a June rose – the first of the summer, a little earlier than expected:
“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.”
Imagining the beauty of past summers, with the sense of their merging into the present, can open up new pathways for feeling. And Jefferies wants this expanded feeling, this knowledge of beauty, to enter all human lives, and to flow on unchecked into the future. Love begins with beauty and the natural awakening of the imagination. Heart awareness is all that is required for this shift in consciousness. Much of the nature of the heart appears to have been forgotten in our world, and the various belief systems and spiritual programmes that have gripped mankind down to this day have not helped us to remember.
In his novel The Dewy Morn (see earlier post ‘Among the Shadows of Summer’), the heroine Felise is unable to feel anything other than love while in the midst of nature. This love is due to “the wonderful mechanism of the mind, the heart, of life”. It arises in her long before she meets a man to love. The heart (and the mind) is a primary reality, like the sun, the air and the grass. Felise’s love grows out of the earth itself, and in its own time it fills her mind with thoughts of love for a man.
For Jefferies, the Greek ideal of perfection of both mind and body was a continual inspiration, permeating his autobiography, novels and many essays. When reading his expression of the ideal life, an understandable reaction is to question the achievability of such a condition. We might easily ask: the world’s never going to be perfect, and nor will we, so shouldn’t we just make the best of things and not fill our minds with empty hopes? Jefferies himself asked that question, but his own heart would never let him abandon those higher hopes. The idea expressed by the Greek statue became a reality somewhere in his imagination and it sought communication and connection with the wider world. The Story of My Heart, a book meditated on for seventeen years and finally written with great urgency following illness, is the record of the presence of that heart-ideal in his life. Did it all come to an end with Jefferies, or might it still have relevance, and resonance, in the world of today?
“How willingly I would strew the paths of all with flowers; how beautiful a delight to make the world joyous! The song should never be silent, the dance never still, the laugh should sound like water which runs for ever.” The Story of My Heart