In his fine essay, ‘Hours of Spring’, written late in his life, Jefferies once again combines his senses and mind to filter the sounds, colours and odours of early spring into a river of deep feeling. In the first quotation below, the opening paragraph of the essay, nature seems to possess the power of communication, ‘speaking’ to him of some hidden meaning that is present everywhere.
The tragedy behind ‘Hours of Spring’ is that Jefferies was dying of tuberculosis at the time of writing. While he could hear some birdsong, he was unable to get out of doors to welcome in the new season and the re-birth of life. But still he knew everything that was happening in the garden and the fields – his heart’s memory truthfully re-created it. Perhaps there is a wonderful poignancy in his description of the wind. While he can’t go out to touch the things that bring joy, he thinks of the wind which touches everything and ‘crumbles the earth in its fingers’.
“It is sweet on awaking in the early morn to listen to the small bird singing on the tree. No sound of voice or flute is like to the bird’s song; there is something in it distinct and separate from all other notes. The throat of woman gives forth a more perfect music, and the organ is the glory of man’s soul. The bird upon the tree utters the meaning of the wind—a voice of the grass and wild flower, words of the green leaf; they speak through that slender tone. Sweetness of dew and rifts of sunshine, the dark hawthorn touched with breadths of open bud, the odour of the air, the colour of the daffodil—all that is delicious and beloved of spring-time are expressed in his song. Genius is nature, and his lay, like the sap in the bough from which he sings, rises without thought. Nor is it necessary that it should be a song; a few short notes in the sharp spring morning are sufficient to stir the heart. But yesterday the least of them all came to a bough by my window, and in his call I heard the sweet-briar wind rushing over the young grass. Refulgent fall the golden rays of the sun; a minute only, the clouds cover him and the hedge is dark. The bloom of the gorse is shut like a book; but it is there—a few hours of warmth and the covers will fall open. The meadow is bare, but in a little while the heart-shaped celandine leaves will come in their accustomed place. On the pollard willows the long wands are yellow-ruddy in the passing gleam of sunshine, the first colour of spring appears in their bark. The delicious wind rushes among them and they bow and rise; it touches the top of the dark pine that looks in the sun the same now as in summer; it lifts and swings the arching trail of bramble; it dries and crumbles the earth in its fingers; the hedge-sparrow’s feathers are fluttered as he sings on the bush.”
The obvious intimacy between his senses and his mind is what seems to give his writing its ‘living’ quality. His scenes are much more than descriptions. His mind reads from the book of nature, where every event unfolds in its own time. Behind his words we sense the presence of his heart, trying always to reach what is beautiful. It finds something of itself in every fresh sight and sound and, being a whole entity, it perceives nature also as a whole.
Unlike ‘The Pageant of Summer’ and ‘Meadow Thoughts’, ‘Hours of Spring’ has a pronounced, and understandable, strain of melancholy. The spring will come and go without him, but his work has bequeathed to us something of the magic of all English springs. The season was always new to Jefferies and the earth ever-young, because his heart was ever-young.
“The green hawthorn buds prophesy on the hedge; the reed pushes up in the moist earth like a spear thrust through a shield; the eggs of the starling are laid in the knot-hole of the pollard elm—common eggs, but within each a speck that is not to be found in the cut diamond of two hundred carats—the dot of protoplasm, the atom of life. There was one row of pollards where they always began laying first. With a big stick in his beak the rook is blown aside like a loose feather in the wind; he knows his building-time from the fathers of his house—hereditary knowledge handed down in settled course: but the stray things of the hedge, how do they know? The great blackbird has planted his nest by the ash-stole, open to every one’s view, without a bough to conceal it and not a leaf on the ash—nothing but the moss on the lower end of the branches. He does not seek cunningly for concealment. I think of the drift of time, and I see the apple bloom coming and the blue veronica in the grass. A thousand thousand buds and leaves and flowers and blades of grass, things to note day by day, increasing so rapidly that no pencil can put them down and no book hold them, not even to number them—and how to write the thoughts they give? All these without me—how can they manage without me?”
The despair contained in the last sentence above is gradually absorbed as the essay moves forward. Jefferies reaches out beyond personal unhappiness to bring the human condition into sharp focus. Nature can be loved for her beauty but we humans have no special place in the scheme of life. We have to help ourselves as a species, and for this we need some sense of an ideal. Realising that his time was running out, Jefferies felt out into the future, hopeful that those to follow him would in time enjoy a more beautiful and fulfilled life. He reminds us that this is the only reason to have a future – to imagine it as better than the present – and that we should do something now, while we can, to realise its potential. The emergence of every spring from winter and the continual re-birth of life is the clearest illustration of this universal principle.
“The bitter truth that human life is no more to the universe than that of the unnoticed hill-snail in the grass should make us think more and more highly of ourselves as human—as men—living things that think. We must look to ourselves to help ourselves. We must think ourselves into an earthly immortality. By day and by night, by years and by centuries, still striving, studying, searching to find that which shall enable us to live a fuller life upon the earth—to have a wider grasp upon its violets and loveliness, a deeper draught of the sweet-briar wind. Because my heart beats feebly to-day, my trickling pulse scarcely notating the passing of the time, so much the more do I hope that those to come in future years may see wider and enjoy fuller than I have done; and so much the more gladly would I do all that I could to enlarge the life that shall be then. There is no hope on the old lines—they are dead, like the empty shells; from the sweet delicious violets think out fresh petals of thought and colours, as it were, of soul.”