THE GROOVED VALLEY

Simon Coleman

south-downs-firle-beacon-getty

The South Downs.  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/east-sussex/south-downs/articles/The-South-Downs-pub-walks/

 

The following passage from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’, provides a perfect example of how a particular landscape can induce a calm and creative state of mind.  The landscape in this case is chalk downland, where sharp valleys can suddenly cut into wide stretches of smooth, rolling surfaces.  I feel that the sides of the narrow valley help to ‘shut out’ the everyday concerns of his life, the memories and personal perspectives, allowing a concentration of mind on the blue sky, the earth, time and the power of the sun.  His life is no longer personal – he is part of all that there is, and belongs to all that there is.

 

‘Sometimes I went to a deep, narrow valley in the hills, silent and solitary. The sky crossed from side to side, like a roof supported on two walls of green. Sparrows chirped in the wheat at the verge above, their calls falling like the twittering of swallows from the air. There was no other sound. The short grass was dried grey as it grew by the heat; the sun hung over the narrow vale as if it had been put there by hand. Burning, burning, the sun glowed on the sward at the foot of the slope where these thoughts burned into me. How many, many years, how many cycles of years, how many bundles of cycles of years, had the sun glowed down thus on that hollow? Since it was formed how long? Since it was worn and shaped, groove-like, in the flanks of the hills by mighty forces which had ebbed. Alone with the sun which glowed on the work when it was done, I saw back through space to the old time of tree-ferns, of the lizard flying through the air, the lizard-dragon wallowing in sea foam, the mountainous creatures, twice-elephantine, feeding on land; all the crooked sequence of life. The dragon-fly which passed me traced a continuous descent from the fly marked on stone in those days. The immense time lifted me like a wave rolling under a boat; my mind seemed to raise itself as the swell of the cycles came; it felt strong with the power of the ages. With all that time and power I prayed: that I might have in my soul the intellectual part of it; the idea, the thought. Like a shuttle the mind shot to and fro the past and the present, in an instant.’

 

This narrow, ‘grooved’ valley experience was clearly of major significance in Jefferies’ early life.  The autobiography returns to it more than once.  It can be seen as a symbol or motif for his desire to become absorbed in a greater, limitless, non-personal reality.  Later he is in London:

 

‘Burning on, the great sun stood in the sky, heating the parapet [of London Bridge] , glowing steadfastly upon me as when I rested in the narrow valley grooved out in prehistoric times. Burning on steadfast, and ever present as my thought. Lighting the broad river, the broad walls; lighting the least speck of dust; lighting the great heaven; gleaming on my finger-nail. The fixed point of day—the sun. I was intensely conscious of it; I felt it; I felt the presence of the immense powers of the universe…’

 

In the final paragraph of the book, the valley motif appears once more, perhaps with an even sharper clarity of meaning.  He has found a new grooved valley, this time in the Sussex South Downs, near the sea, and its discovery seems to add a deeper level of perception to the whole book.  In the intervening years between these two valley experiences, his desire for natural beauty and immersion in a greater reality has never diminished.  The language in this last paragraph now seems calmer and more certain.  This desire is of the soul and it knows no limit.

 

‘…the sweet short rain comes mingled with sunbeams and flower-scented air. The finches sing among the fresh green leaves of the beeches. Beautiful it is, in summer days, to see the wheat wave, and the long grass foam—flecked of flower yield and return to the wind. My soul of itself always desires; these are to it as fresh food. I have found in the hills another valley grooved in prehistoric times, where, climbing to the top of the hollow, I can see the sea. Down in the hollow I look up; the sky stretches over, the sun burns as it seems but just above the hill, and the wind sweeps onward. As the sky extends beyond the valley, so I know that there are ideas beyond the valley of my thought…’

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PILGRIMAGE IN COUNTRY AND CITY

SIMON COLEMAN

 

Here is a fine passage from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’. His economical prose takes us through a variety of scenes, the emotions clear but restrained. Places of pilgrimage in nature were essential to him – places where he could experience beauty and feel connected to the ‘immense forces’ that are the four elements. He alludes to unhappiness but his search for beauty is unceasing. In the heart of London he finds nature to be ‘deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones’. I find something very inspiring about this perception, and the whole of the last paragraph. I hope others do as well.

 

“Afterwards, I walked almost daily more than two miles along the road to a spot where the hills began, where from the first rise the road could be seen winding southwards over the hills, open and uninclosed. I paused a minute or two by a clump of firs, in whose branches the wind always sighed—there is always a movement of the air on a hill. Southwards the sky was illumined by the sun, southwards the clouds moved across the opening or pass in the amphitheatre, and southwards, though far distant, was the sea. There I could think a moment. These pilgrimages gave me a few sacred minutes daily; the moment seemed holy when the thought or desire came in its full force.

 

A time came when, having to live in a town, these pilgrimages had to be suspended. The wearisome work on which I was engaged would not permit of them. But I used to look now and then, from a window, in the evening at a birch-tree at some distance; its graceful boughs drooped across the glow of the sunset. The thought was not suspended; it lived in me always. A bitterer time still came when it was necessary to be separated from those I loved. There is little indeed in the more immediate suburbs of London to gratify the sense of the beautiful. Yet there was a cedar by which I used to walk up and down, and think the same thoughts as under the great oak in the solitude of the sunlit meadows. In the course of slow time happier circumstances brought us together again, and, though near London, at a spot where there was easy access to meadows and woods. Hills that purify those who walk on them there were not. Still I thought my old thoughts.

 

I was much in London, and, engagements completed, I wandered about in the same way as in the woods of former days. From the stone bridges I looked down on the river; the gritty dust, the straws that lie on the bridges, flew up and whirled round with every gust from the flowing tide; gritty dust that settles in the nostrils and on the lips, the very residuum of all that is repulsive in the greatest city of the world. The noise of the traffic and the constant pressure from the crowds passing, their incessant and disjointed talk, could not distract me. One moment at least I had, a moment when I thought of the push of the great sea forcing the water to flow under the feet of these crowds, the distant sea strong and splendid; when I saw the sunlight gleam on the tidal wavelets; when I felt the wind, and was conscious of the earth, the sea, the sun, the air, the immense forces working on, while the city hummed by the river. Nature was deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones. If the tide had ebbed, and the masts of the vessels were tilted as the hulls rested on the shelving mud, still even the blackened mud did not prevent me seeing the water as water flowing to the sea. The sea had drawn down, and the wavelets washing the strand here as they hastened were running the faster to it. Eastwards from London Bridge the river raced to the ocean.”

 

COSMIC LIONS

Simon Coleman

trafalgar lions

Richard Jefferies wrote two great essays on the theme of Trafalgar Square in London.  One of them, ‘Sunlight in a London Square’, has already been featured on this website.  The following quote is from ‘The Lions in Trafalgar Square’ which explores the relationship between human life and the great unknown, with Landseer’s huge lions symbolising a link between ourselves and the cosmos.

 

‘At summer noontide, when the day surrounds us and it is bright light even in the shadow, I like to stand by one of the lions and yield to the old feeling. The sunshine glows on the dusky creature, as it seems, not on the surface, but under the skin, as if it came up from out of the limb. The roar of the rolling wheels sinks and becomes distant as the sound of a waterfall when dreams are coming. All the abundant human life is smoothed and levelled, the abruptness of the individuals lost in the flowing current, like separate flowers drawn along in a border, like music heard so far off that the notes are molten and the theme only remains. The abyss of the sky over and the ancient sun are near. They only are close at hand, they and immortal thought. When the yellow Syrian lions stood in old time of Egypt, then too, the sunlight gleamed on the eyes of men, as now this hour on mine. The same consciousness of light, the same sun, but the eyes that saw it and mine, how far apart! The immense lion here beside me expresses larger nature—cosmos—the ever-existent thought which sustains the world. Massiveness exalts the mind till the vast roads of space which the sun tramples are as an arm’s-length. Such a moment cannot endure long; gradually the roar deepens, the current resolves into individuals, the houses return—it is only a square.’

 

Here is a link to the full text.   http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27516/27516-h/27516-h.htm#THE_LIONS_IN_TRAFALGAR_SQUARE

 

I really encourage people to read the essay because it possesses a true strength of heart and mind.  I can’t fully explain what I mean by that; nor can I clearly explain why the essay has such a powerful effect on me.  Jefferies celebrates the lions as great art:

 

‘…these are truer and more real, and, besides, these are lions to whom has been added the heart of a man. Nothing disfigures them; smoke and, what is much worse, black rain—rain which washes the atmosphere of the suspended mud—does not affect them in the least. If the choke-damp of fog obscures them, it leaves no stain on the design; if the surfaces be stained, the idea made tangible in metal is not. They are no more touched than Time itself by the alternations of the seasons. The only noble open-air work of native art in the four-million city, they rest there supreme and are the centre.’

 

He then launches into an attack on the fashionable art of his day which he finds shallow and untrue to nature.  This short outburst is the one small blemish on the essay.  Having read the work a number of times, I began to see that it’s not really about visual art.  What I sense it possesses are poetic ideas of real importance.  I’m not a poet but I do think that poetic ideas exist in all people, whether or not they are ever recognised or expressed.  The belief that we can go beyond the given, the defined, our own private and petty fates, the expected outcomes of thought and action, and confront the unknown – belongs to the poetic insight and this, I feel, is what holds the essay together.

 

The mind, the idea, expressed by Jefferies’ lions, opens up possibilities for accessing new realms of thought and imagination – ‘cosmic’ realms where human life might know something of a greater Nature.  Time collapses, but the experience is fleeting as all true insights are.

 

How urgently we need poetic ideas in our data-driven world controlled by an ideologically-focused mass-media, not necessarily to escape it but to feel beyond it towards larger and freer channels of thought.  We can’t all be poets in the literary sense, but accessing the poetic archetype is surely a human necessity.

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.”

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?”

CLOSE TO LONDON

by Simon Coleman

 Hogsmill Surrey

The Hogsmill River, Surrey

In 1877 Jefferies moved to Surbiton, Surrey, to be closer to the journal editors for whom he was writing.  The outcome of his explorations in Surrey was a book, Nature Near London, published in 1883, which was a collection of articles that he had written for “The Standard”.  This book, in a number of ways, was a departure from his earlier country books such as Wild Life in a Southern County and Round About a Great Estate.  It represents a shift in his perception, as he now examines the relationship between city and country in a way that had not been possible in his native Wiltshire.  And, furthermore, he was exploring the effect of the new landscape and the altered rhythm of life on himself.

In these articles he provides some fine sketches of typical scenes in Surrey which, in those days, was considerably more rural than it is today.  He finds as much in the way of animals, birds and plants to write about as in his earlier books.  As he explains in his preface to Nature Near London, his expectations regarding the quantity of wildlife to be found near London turned out to be completely at odds with actual experience.

“It is usually supposed to be necessary to go far into the country to find wild birds and animals in sufficient numbers to be pleasantly studied. Such was certainly my own impression till circumstances led me, for the convenience of access to London, to reside for awhile about twelve miles from town. There my preconceived views on the subject were quite overthrown by the presence of as much bird-life as I had been accustomed to in distant fields and woods…

“Along the roads and lanes the quantity and variety of life in the hedges was really astonishing. Magpies, jays, woodpeckers—both green and pied—kestrels hovering overhead, sparrow-hawks darting over gateways, hares by the clover, weasels on the mounds, stoats at the edge of the corn. I missed but two birds, the corncrake and the grasshopper lark, and found these another season. Two squirrels one day ran along the palings and up into a guelder-rose tree in the garden. As for the finches and sparrows their number was past calculation.”

During his excursions into his new environment, however, Jefferies began to become conscious of “a dim sense of something wanting”.  In the country lanes and woods “there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving. In no grassy mead was there a nook where I could stretch myself in slumberous ease and watch the swallows ever wheeling, wheeling in the sky. This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetised me, and I felt it under the calm oaks. The something wanting in the fields was the absolute quiet, peace, and rest which dwells in the meadows and under the trees and on the hilltops in the country. Under its power the mind gradually yields itself to the green earth, the wind among the trees, the song of birds, and comes to have an understanding with them all. For this it is still necessary to seek the far-away glades and hollow coombes, or to sit alone beside the sea.”

So, while the complete sense of tranquillity found in the deep countryside was absent, he felt, nevertheless, some indefinable attraction to the great city’s power.  He had come into its orbit and the effect could not be ignored.  One of his biographers, W.J. Keith, notes that Jefferies, alone among English nature writers, possessed a strong sensitivity to London and a fascination with its dense human life.  Jefferies’ impressions of the life and atmosphere of London contribute much to his later writing, resonating strongly in The Story of My Heart and in his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair.

In Nature Near London, a wide-ranging and contemplative essay, “Wheatfields”, explores the meeting place of city and country.  Jefferies describes a vivid scene in a cornfield close to London, before shifting his attention to the complex life of the city.  A short distance away a train passes over an iron bridge, but the reapers at work in the field are too busy to notice the sound.  He then imagines a commuting businessman on the train who is himself completely wrapped up in his own world of city institutions.

“And if the merchant spares an abstracted glance from the morning or evening newspaper out upon the fields from the carriage window, the furrows of the field can have but little meaning. Each looks to him exactly alike. To the farmers and the labourer such and such a furrow marks an acre and has its bearing, but to the passing glance it is not so. The work in the field is so slow; the passenger by rail sees, as it seems to him, nothing going on; the corn may sow itself almost for all that is noteworthy in apparent labour.”

The highly contrasted worlds of country and city come into brief contact but they remain separated, apparently incomprehensible to each other.  This in-between land, where the fields approach the edge of the city, allows Jefferies’ imagination to wander between the two environments.  He finds that repetitive patterns of labour are largely to blame for this puzzling division in the human mind.  While the merchant’s mind is “rapt and absorbed in discount and dollars, in bills and merchandise”, he cannot see that his dependence on the wheat produced by agriculture has in no way diminished.  And those at work in the fields, whose lives are “hard toil and hard fare”, haven’t even the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful colours and sounds all around them.

Faced with this dispiriting state of human civilisation, Jefferies, instinctively, looks for some simple, visible connection between city and country: something to provide a sense of beauty and hope.

“It is easy in London to forget that it is midsummer, till, going some day into Covent Garden Market, you see baskets of the cornflower, or blue-bottle as it is called in the country, ticketed ‘Corinne’, and offered for sale. The lovely azure of the flower recalls the scene where it was first gathered long since at the edge of the wheat.”