More THOUGHTS IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE

trafalgar sq

Source: britainexpress.com

SIMON COLEMAN

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.”

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THOUGHTS IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE

Simon Coleman

trafalgar-squareSource: http://www.victorianweb.org

An ordinary summer’s day in Trafalgar Square in the early 1880s; nothing remarkable – it’s a bit noisier these days but we can easily imagine the scene Jefferies quietly paints for us. Jefferies, however, could not possibly find such a scene ordinary. Light and shadow, the passing of people, splashes of colour, the swallows, a solitary cloud – all impart something of deep interest and, much more than that, of deep meaning. The ceaseless flood of light seems to induce in him a dreamy state of perception. Rigid boundaries fade away, the moment in time seems to lengthen, and other possibilities for human life begin to suggest themselves.

EXTRACT FROM THE FIRST PART OF ‘SUNLIGHT IN A LONDON SQUARE’

“There are days now and again when the summer broods in Trafalgar Square; the flood of light from a cloudless sky gathers and grows, thickening the air; the houses enclose the beams as water is enclosed in a cup. Sideways from the white-painted walls light is reflected; upwards from the broad, heated pavement in the centre light and heat ascend; from the blue heaven it presses downwards. Not only from the sun—one point—but from the entire width of the visible blue the brilliant stream flows. Summer is enclosed between the banks of houses—all summer’s glow and glory of exceeding brightness. The blue panel overhead has but a stray fleck of cloud, a Cupid drawn on the panel in pure white, but made indefinite by distance. The joyous swallows climb high into the illuminated air till the eye, daunted by the glow, can scarce detect their white breasts as they turn.

Slant shadows from the western side give but a margin of contrast; the rays are reflected through them, and they are only shadows of shadows. At the edges their faint sloping lines are seen in the air, where a million motes impart a fleeting solidity to the atmosphere. A pink-painted front, the golden eagle of the great West, golden lettering, every chance strip and speck of colour is washed in the dazzling light, made clear and evident. The hands and numerals of the clock yonder are distinct and legible, the white dial-plate polished; a window suddenly opened throws a flash across the square. Eastwards the air in front of the white walls quivers, heat and light reverberating visibly, and the dry flowers on the window-sills burn red and yellow in the glare. Southwards green trees, far down the street, stand, as it seems, almost at the foot of the chiselled tower of Parliament—chiselled in straight lines and perpendicular grooves, each of which casts a shadow into itself. Again, the corners advanced before the main wall throw shadows on it, and the hollow casements draw shadows into their cavities. Thus, in the bright light against the blue sky the tower pencils itself with a dark crayon, and is built, not of stone, but of light and shadow. Flowing lines of water rise and fall from the fountains in the square, drooping like the boughs of a weeping ash, drifted a little to one side by an imperceptible air, and there sprinkling the warm pavement in a sparkling shower. The shower of finely divided spray now advances and now retreats, as the column of water bends to the current of air, or returns to its upright position.

By a pillared gateway there is a group in scarlet, and from time to time other groups in scarlet pass and repass within the barrack-court. A cream-tinted dress, a pink parasol—summer hues—go by in the stream of dark-clothed people; a flower fallen on the black water of a river. Either the light subdues the sound, or perhaps rather it renders the senses slumberous and less sensitive, but the great sunlit square is silent—silent, that is, for the largest city on earth. A slumberous silence of abundant light, of the full summer day, of the high flood of summer hours whose tide can rise no higher. A time to linger and dream under the beautiful breast of heaven, heaven brooding and descending in pure light upon man’s handiwork. If the light shall thus come in, and of its mere loveliness overcome every aspect of dreariness, why shall not the light of thought, and hope—the light of the soul—overcome and sweep away the dust of our lives?”

‘THE LONG-LIVED SUMMER DAYS’

Simon Coleman

greenfinch-in-plum-tree

In the following two passages Jefferies demonstrates how far he has progressed from his early writing which earned him a reputation as a naturalist and a chronicler of rural life. His prose now feels completely in tune with nature, being able to communicate his deep and reverent absorption in the life all around him. The great universal life principle is expressing itself everywhere, and he knows he is as much a part of it as the grasses and the butterflies. It is enough for him just to be alive in these long days of sunlight.

From ‘The Story of My Heart’ (1883)

The long-lived summer days dried and warmed the turf in the meadows. I used to lie down in solitary corners at full length on my back, so as to feel the embrace of the earth. The grass stood high above me, and the shadows of the tree-branches danced on my face. I looked up at the sky, with half-closed eyes to bear the dazzling light. Bees buzzed over me, sometimes a butterfly passed, there was a hum in the air, greenfinches sang in the hedge. Gradually entering into the intense life of the summer days—a life which burned around as if every grass blade and leaf were a torch—I came to feel the long-drawn life of the earth back into the dimmest past, while the sun of the moment was warm on me…..Dreamy in appearance, I was breathing full of existence; I was aware of the grass blades, the flowers, the leaves on hawthorn and tree. I seemed to live more largely through them, as if each were a pore through which I drank. The grasshoppers called and leaped, the greenfinches sang, the blackbirds happily fluted, all the air hummed with life. I was plunged deep in existence…”

From ‘The July Grass’ in ‘Field and Hedgerow’ (1889)

The fly whirls his scarlet-spotted wings about and splashes himself with sunlight, like the children on the sands. He thinks not of the grass and sun; he does not heed them at all—and that is why he is so happy — any more than the barefoot children ask why the sea is there, or why it does not quite dry up when it ebbs. He is unconscious; he lives without thinking about living; and if the sunshine were a hundred hours long, still it would not be long enough. No, never enough of sun and sliding shadows that come like a hand over the table to lovingly reach our shoulder, never enough of the grass that smells sweet as a flower, not if we could live years and years equal in number to the tides that have ebbed and flowed counting backwards four years to every day and night, backward still till we found out which came first, the night or the day. The scarlet-dotted fly knows nothing of the names of the grasses that grow here where the sward nears the sea, and thinking of him I have decided not to wilfully seek to learn any more of their names either. My big grass book I have left at home, and the dust is settling on the gold of the binding. I have picked a handful this morning of which I know nothing. I will sit here on the turf and the scarlet-dotted flies shall pass over me, as if I too were but a grass. I will not think, I will be unconscious, I will live.”