Jefferies often sees the past in the midst of the present. Here he reminds us that the swallows were singing back in Roman times. As in other works, he laments the endless burden of labour that the human race has imposed upon itself through the ages. Intense and repetitive work robs us of the golden hours of light and colour that are part of a healthy life. For Jefferies, such experience of beauty ought to be a right, not a luxury. He hopes that sometime in the future mankind will find a way to walk freely in the sunlight. He looks away, symbolically, from the National Gallery to find the scene in front of him as great as any work of art. This is the scene that he himself has painted so lovingly for us. And, passing through it is a stream of living human hearts – just as there was in Rome, in old times.
‘SUNLIGHT IN A LONDON SQUARE’, continued from previous post
“I stood under the portico of the National Gallery in the shade looking southwards, across the fountains and the lions, towards the green trees under the distant tower. Once a swallow sang in passing on the wing, garrulous still as in the time of old Rome and Augustan Virgil. From the high pediments dropped the occasional chatter of sparrows and the chirp of their young in the roofs. The second brood, they were late; they would not be in time for the harvest and the fields of stubble. A flight of blue pigeons rose from the central pavement to the level line of the parapet of the western houses. A starling shot across the square, swift, straight, resolute. I looked for the swifts, but they had gone, earliest of all to leave our sky for distant countries. Away in the harvest field the reaper, pausing in his work, had glanced up at the one stray fleck of cloud in the sky, which to my fancy might be a Cupid on a blue panel, and seeing it smiled in the midst of the corn, wiping his blackened face, for he knew it meant dry weather. Heat, and the dust of the straw, the violent labour had darkened his face from brown almost to blackness—a more than swarthiness, a blackness. The stray cloud was spreading out in filaments, each thread drawn to a fineness that ended presently in disappearance. It was a sign to him of continued sunshine and the prosperity of increased wages. The sun from whose fiery brilliance I escaped into the shadow was to him a welcome friend; his neck was bare to the fierceness of the sun. His heart was gladdened because the sky promised him permission to labour till the sinews of his fingers stiffened in their crooked shape (as they held the reaping-hook), and he could hardly open them to grasp the loaf he had gained.
So men laboured of old time, whether with plough or sickle or pruning-hook, in the days when Augustan Virgil heard the garrulous swallow, still garrulous. An endless succession of labour, under the brightness of summer, under the gloom of winter; to my thought it is a sadness even in the colour and light and glow of this hour of sun, this ceaseless labour, repeating the furrow, reiterating the blow, the same furrow, the same stroke—shall we never know how to lighten it, how to live with the flowers, the swallows, the sweet delicious shade, and the murmur of the stream? Not the blackened reaper only, but the crowd whose low hum renders the fountain inaudible, the nameless and unknown crowd of this immense city wreathed round about the central square. I hope that at some time, by dint of bolder thought and freer action, the world shall see a race able to enjoy it without stint, a race able to enjoy the flowers with which the physical world is strewn, the colours of the garden of life. To look backwards with the swallow there is sadness, to-day with the fleck of cloud there is unrest; but forward, with the broad sunlight, there is hope.
Except you see these colours, and light, and tones, except you see the blue heaven over the parapet, you know not, you cannot feel, how great are the possibilities of man. At my back, within the gallery, there is many a canvas painted under Italian skies, in glowing Spain, in bright Southern France. There are scenes lit with the light that gleams on orange grove and myrtle; these are faces tinted with the golden hue that floats in southern air. But yet, if any one impartial will stand here outside, under the portico, and forgetting that it is prosaic London, will look at the summer enclosed within the square, and acknowledge it for itself as it is, he must admit that the view—light and colour, tone and shade—is equal to the painted canvas, is full, as it were, to the brim of interest, suggestion, and delight. Before the painted canvas you stand with prepared mind; you have come to see Italy, you are educated to find colour, and the poetry of tone. Therefore you see it, if it is there. Here in the portico you are unprepared, uneducated; no one has ever given a thought of it. But now trace out the colour and the brightness; gaze up into the sky, watch the swallows, note the sparkle of the fountain, observe the distant tower chiselled with the light and shade. Think, then, of the people, not as mere buyers and sellers, as mere counters, but as human beings—beings possessed of hearts and minds, full of the passions and the hopes and fears which made the ancient poets great merely to record. These are the same passions that were felt in antique Rome, whose very name is a section of human life. There is colour in these lives now as then.”
Footnote: “The sunlight and the winds enter London, and the life of the fields is there too, if you will but see it.”