Anyone who spends a lot of time out in the English countryside cannot fail to notice the great variety of atmospheric effects that can appear, especially over hilly land. Effects of light, cloud and shadow and subtle plays of colour continually offer surprises to our eyes all year round. In his different styles, Richard Jefferies possessed the ability to capture the varied moods of the sky and atmosphere, hardly ever missing an opportunity to say something about the clouds he observed. In this passage from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, he provides a stark description of a drought in the Wiltshire downs before gently shifting our gaze to the dreamy clouds which mesmerize with their motion and hues.
“Once now and then in the cycle of the years there comes a summer which to the hills is almost like a fever to the blood, wasting and drying up with its heat the green things upon which animal life depends, so that drought and famine go hand in hand. The days go by and grow to weeks, the weeks lengthen to months, and still no rain. The sun pours down his burning rays, which become hotter as the season advances; the sky is blue and beautiful over the hills–beautiful, but pitiless to the bleating flocks beneath. The breeze comes up from the south, bringing with it white clouds sailing at an immense height, with openings between like azure lakes or aerial Mediterraneans landlocked by banks of vapour.
These, if you watch them from the rampart, slowly dissolve; fragments break away from the mass as the edges of the polar glaciers slip off the ice-cliff into the sea, only these are noiseless. The fragment detached grows visibly thinner and more translucent, its margin stretching out in an uneven fringe: the process is almost exactly like the unravelling of a spotless garment, the threads wavering and twisting as they are carried along by the current, diminishing till they fade and are lost in the ocean of blue. This breaking of the clouds is commonly seen in weather that promises to be fine. From the brow here, you may note a solitary cloud just risen above the horizon; it floats slowly towards us; presently it divides into several parts; these, again, fall away in jagged, irregular pieces like flecks of foam. By the time it has reached the zenith these flecks have lengthened out, and shortly afterwards the cloud has entirely melted and is gone. The delicate hue, the contrast of the fleecy white with the deepest azure, the ever-changing form, the light shining through the gauzy texture, the gentle dreamy motion, lend these clouds an exquisite beauty.”
Later in the book, he describes a very different cloud scene.
“When the sky is overcast—large masses of cloud, with occasional breaks, passing slowly across it at a considerable elevation without rain – sometimes through these narrow slits long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale. They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scales the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air. So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes floating in the atmosphere. They seem to linger in their place as the clouds drift with scarcely perceptible motion; and the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”
Typically in Jefferies’ writing, underlying the careful objectivity of his descriptions, we detect the presence of some deeper level of experience. Here, in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’, the clouds seem to lead the reposing mind towards an idea of eternal time.
“Lying at full length inside the shadow of the oak, Bevis gazed up at the clouds, which were at an immense height, and drifted so slowly as to scarcely seem to move, only he saw that they did because he had a fixed point in the edge of the oak boughs. So thin and delicate was the texture of the white sky-lace above him that the threads scarcely hid the blue which the eye knew was behind and above it. It was warm without the pressure of heat, soft, luxurious; the summer like them reclined, resting in the fulness of the time.”
On another occasion, in the High Weald of Sussex, he can celebrate an unending variety of cloud formations passing over.
“Clouds drift over; it is a wonderful observatory for cloud studies; they seem so close, the light is so strong, and there is nothing to check the sight as far as its powers will reach. Clouds come up no wider than a pasture-field, but in length stretching out to the very horizon, dividing the blue sky into two halves; but then every day has its different clouds—the fleets of heaven that are always sailing on and know no haven.” (‘Buckhurst Park’)
Jefferies was not afraid of introducing occasional romantic touches, such as this one from ‘Hours of Spring’:
“…the beautiful clouds that go over, with the sweet rush of rain and burst of sun glory among the leafy trees.”
In a very late and sad essay, ‘My Old Village’, composed when he was bed-ridden and aware he was dying of tuberculosis, Jefferies plunges into an astonishingly poignant reminiscence of his youth in the north Wiltshire countryside. He also reveals a new depth to his love of clouds.
“There used to be clouds over the fields, white clouds in blue summer skies. I have lived a good deal on clouds; they have been meat to me often; they bring something to the spirit which even the trees do not. I see clouds now sometimes when the iron grip of hell permits for a minute or two; they are very different clouds, and speak differently. I long for some of the old clouds that had no memories.”
The clouds of that youthful time possessed something magical that never left him. Near the end of the essay he complains that, “No one seems to understand how I got food from the clouds.”
It is perhaps not surprising that a dreamer like Jefferies, who understood the value of beauty rather than material wealth, was not comprehensible to late-Victorian society. However, as we look back on Jefferies through the lens of our present digital age, I think many of us do feel the need to re-connect with a reality much greater than our endless flow of electronic information and stimuli. We only have to think of the real earth and the real sky, and all that they mean to the human heart, and we sense something of what Jefferies found in the clouds and changing light over the wide chalk uplands or the summer pastures. With a small shift of our attention, we too can re-discover beautiful things that have never left us. There is, I believe, a Richard Jefferies in all of us.