A Guest Post by Clive Bennett
‘See—the hawk, after going nearly out of sight, has swept round, and passes again at no great distance; this is a common habit of his kind, to beat round in wide circles. As the breeze strikes him aslant his course he seems to fly for a short time partly on one side, like a skater sliding on the outer edge …
Richard Jefferies wrote passionately about nature and the countryside combining vivid description and imagery – painting in words – his palette the nature of his beloved hills and vales the downs and all the trees birds insects and animals that lived there …
He is my inspiration (in a sense my muse) for writing poetry, haiku, and prose; and in life. As a teenager before mindfulness became fashionable I found solace in his essays – especially his autobiography – ‘The Story of My Heart’ which held particular resonance – I was no longer alone as I lay on the short turf of the Wiltshire Downs and lost myself in the pure rich blue of the sky. Later I too learnt the transcendent power of a stray sunbeam in a dusty room and birch leaves trembling from outside an upstairs window of a city flat …
As an aspiring haiku poet, reading his essays – prose poems if you like – afresh, such is the richness of imagery and language they seem imbued with the spirit of haiku. Looking closely, within the larger body of his texts, there are words and lines that hint at an underlying, yet unexpressed, Zen like moment of awareness or suchness.
The Found Poem
Some 25 years or more ago, having previously published a book on Found Poems (‘Some Spirit Land’ – 1986) from the Nature Essays of Richard Jefferies, Colin Blundell presented his seminal work on Found Haiku (‘Something Beyond The Stars’ – 1993) to the Richard Jefferies Society; a unique and novel approach to the study of Richard Jefferies.
Colin – a respected haiku poet … and lifelong student of the prose poems of Richard Jefferies, among many other things – found words and phrases in his essays and notes that, expressed as haiku, sought to elucidate that moment of awareness, that Zen moment of suchness, he believed Jefferies experienced, but struggled to convey in mere words. Jefferies himself felt he would sometimes ‘lose the meaning in words’.
willow wren singing
in the dry furze of the coombe
violets in the furze
15th April 1883
Colin used the 5-7-5 discipline, in common English usage at the time, in writing his haiku. While the poems were quintessentially Jefferies, contemporary freeform haiku allows a more flexible approach in their construction.
climbing among the flags
The Hills and the Vale – 1909
Yet I am dissatisfied. While this is a perfectly good haiku – a ‘sketch from life’ (Shiki) – there is no moment of awareness or insight. It is ‘as is’. What is missing perhaps, is what the late Martin Lucas calls the Poetic Spell …
The Poetic Spell
‘To approach the poetic spell via imagery often appears to involve nothing more than mere description. The difference is that what is described is somehow so satisfying that we linger in the moment, and almost seek to dwell in it.
One criterion of the poetic spell would be original thought; original imagery; and, pleasingly musical language. Importantly, it also resists definitive interpretation. It’s very much the reader’s poem.’
a light breeze
sweeping the hill
the kestrel’s cry
‘Poetic spells don’t tell us anything, they are something, they exist as objects of fascination in their own right. You can hold them in the light and turn them about and watch each of their facets gleam. They begin and end each reader’s unique reflection.’
Here is the extract from which this haiku was derived …
‘… Presently a small swift shadow passes across—it is that of a hawk flying low over the hill. He skirts it for some distance, and then shoots out into the air, comes back half-way, and hangs over the fallow below, where there is a small rick. His wings vibrate, striking the air downwards, and only slightly backwards, the tail depressed counteracting the inclination to glide forwards for awhile. In a few moments he slips, as it were, from his balance, but brings, himself up again in a few yards, turning a curve so as to still hover above the rick. …’
‘… See—the hawk, after going nearly out of sight, has swept round, and passes again at no great distance; this is a common habit of his kind, to beat round in wide circles. As the breeze strikes him aslant his course he seems to fly for a short time partly on one side, like a skater sliding on the outer edge. …’
An extract from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ – his essays of happier times in the hills and vales of the Wessex Downs.
Now read, preferably out loud, the haiku again – linger in the moment of each line …
a light breeze
sweeping the hill
the kestrel’s cry
Here, by using just a few words – hawk swept breeze – the haiku gently invokes your senses; leading you to the hill, and the hawk in the wind – the moment is yours.
For Richard Jefferies the freedom of a bird’s life was appealing to him, as was a bird’s ability to live in tune with its surroundings and to take delight in the natural rhythms and beauties of the seasons.
“… the colour and sound and light, the changing days, the birds of the wood and of the field; its woven embroidery so beautiful, because without design …”
The Dewy Morn’ (1884).
This then is the charm – the spell – of Richard Jefferies’ prose … the found poems in the brief seasonal foray, that follows, lead you back to the essays from which they are derived, with an enriched sense of beauty.
‘Passing further up the road, the rooks have discovered an arable field, where, just before the snow fell, manure had been carted out and left in small heaps for spreading. These are now covered with snow, but near the bottom are perhaps not quite frozen. An oak-tree, white to the smallest twig, stands solitary in the midst. A whole flock of rooks are perched on it; every two or three minutes some descend to the immediate neighbourhood of the manure heaps, and after a short interval rise with a feeble caw and rest upon a branch. There is a perpetual stream of rooks like this passing up and down. The very bough the rook roosts on at night is coated with frozen snow, though his weight as he alights shakes it off in some degree under his claws.’
rooks gather …
the bough breaks
under the snow
Under the Snow – via Rebecca Welshman
‘It is the February summer that comes, and lasts a week or so between the January frosts and the east winds that rush through the thorns. Some little green is even now visible along the mound where seed-leaves are springing up. The sun is warm, and the still air genial, the sky only dotted with a few white clouds. Wood-pigeons are busy in the elms, where the ivy is thick with ripe berries. There is a feeling of spring and of growth; in a day or two we shall find violets; and listen, how sweetly the larks are singing! Some chase each other, and then hover fluttering above the hedge.’
tease the blackbird
Life of the Fields 1899
‘… “There’s the cuckoo!” Everyone looked up and listened as the notes came indoors from the copse by the garden. He had returned to the same spot for the fourth time. The tallest birch-tree—it is as tall as an elm—stands close to the hedge, about three parts of the way up it, and it is just round there that the cuckoo generally sings. From the garden gate it is only a hundred yards to this tree, walking beside the hedge which extends all the way, so that the very first time the cuckoo calls upon his arrival he is certain to be heard. His voice travels that little distance with ease, and can be heard in every room.’
filling every room
the cuckoo’s call
The Hills and the Vale 1909
‘There seemed just now the tiniest twinkle of movement by the rushes, but it was lost among the hedge parsley. Among the grey leaves of the willow there is another flit of motion; and visible now against the sky there is a little brown bird, not to be distinguished at the moment from the many other little brown birds that are known to be about. He got up into the willow from the hedge parsley somehow, without being seen to climb or fly. Suddenly he crosses to the tops of the hawthorn and immediately flings himself up into the air a yard or two, his wings and ruffled crest making a ragged outline; jerk, jerk, jerk, as if it were with the utmost difficulty he could keep even at that height. He scolds, and twitters, and chirps, and all at once sinks like a stone into the hedge and out of sight as a stone into a pond. It is a whitethroat; his nest is deep in the parsley and nettles.’
the only sound …
bursting from the hedge
“The Pageant of Summer,” which originally appeared in Longman’s Magazine, was reprinted in The Life of the Fields – 1887
‘The colour of the yellowhammer appears brighter in spring and early summer: the bird is aglow with a beautiful and brilliant, yet soft yellow, pleasantly shaded with brown. He perches on the upper boughs of the hawthorn or on a rail, coming up from the corn as if to look around him—for he feeds chiefly on the ground—and uttering two or three short notes. His plumage gives a life and tint to the hedge, contrasting so brightly with the vegetation and with other birds. His song is but a few bars repeated, yet it has a pleasing and soothing effect in the drowsy warmth of summer.’
in evening’s glow
the warm air still
“Wild Life in a Southern County” 1879
swirling twisting turning
drop into firs
‘In the thick foliage of this belt of firs the starlings love to roost. If you should be passing along any road—east, north, west, or south —a mile or two distant, as the sun is sinking and evening approaching, suddenly there will come a rushing sound in the air overhead: it is a flock of starlings flying in their determined manner straight for the distant copse. From every direction these flocks converge upon it: some large, some composed only of a dozen birds, but all with the same intent …’
‘… Viewed from a spot three or four fields away, the copse in the evening seems to be overhung by a long dark cloud like a bar of mist, while the sky is clear and no dew is yet risen. The resemblance to a cloud is so perfect that any one—not thinking of such things—may for the time be deceived, and wonder why a cloud should descend and rest over that particular spot. Suddenly, the two ends of the extended black bar contract, and the middle swoops down in the shape of an inverted cone, much resembling a waterspout, and in a few seconds the cloud pours itself into the trees. Another minute and a black streak shoots upwards, spreads like smoke, parts in two, and wheels round back into the firs again.
On approaching it this apparent cloud is found to consist of thousands of starlings, the noise of whose calling to each other is indescribable—the country folk call it a “charm,” meaning a noise made up of innumerable lesser sounds, each interfering with the other. The vastness of these flocks is hardly credible until seen; in winter the bare trees on which they alight become suddenly quite black.’
wave after wave
sound of pebbles
in the backwash
“Wild Life in a Southern County” 1879
Liddington Hill by Kate Allen Tryon
Artist Credit: Picture of Liddington Hill by Kate Allen Tryon (March 18, 1865 – 1952) – an American journalist, artist and lecturer.
Kate Tryon first visited Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1910, and she returned 5 other times: “The lark, the nightingale and Richard Jefferies – those are the three things that brought me to England”; the output of these visits is a vast array of paintings.
© the copyright holder. Photo credit: Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and reproduced here under the terms of their licence
Here’s one though not about birds … perhaps a fitting postscript that for me describes the ethos of his writing and of Jefferies himself …
a leaf falls
The Hills and the Vale 1909
Thanks to Rebecca Welshman for hosting this Guest Post and to Simon Coleman who unwittingly provided me with some of the quoted passages. Thanks also to Colin Blundell who ‘got there first’.