“In the Midst of the Stream of Light”: recognising the soul

‘The Life of the Soul’ selected & introduced by Simon Coleman

 rj image butterfly 001

In a short, untitled, autobiographical piece of writing, probably dating from the last five years of his life, Jefferies turns his mind inwards towards the inexpressible thought that had haunted his entire adult life.  He wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Heart: “as the brook ran winding through the meadow, so one thought ran winding through my days.”  The second part of this sentence is reproduced in the untitled piece which was eventually published in 1948, in S.J. Looker’s collection The Old House at Coate.  Looker gave the manuscript the title, “The Life of the Soul”, recognising it as a pure fragment chipped from the edifice of Jefferies’ thought and life-expression.

In his autobiography Jefferies sought to “free thought from every trammel”, believing in the infinite potential of the human mind.  His “one thought” was the hidden impulse driving his desire for the most complete freedom of mind, health of body, and power of soul that he could conceive.

In the following quotations from the “Life of the Soul” manuscript, we become aware of the deep currents of his inner life.  Jefferies uses the things of outer nature as symbols as he strives to communicate his Thought, aware that words are painfully inadequate for this purpose.  The Thought is present wherever there is light and earth, but he knows that it really moves within: it is his life.

The manuscript might have been connected to the composition process for The Story of My Heart, or it might have been written later.  The language shows some differences to that in the autobiography.  It is calmer, less concerned with an active search for something, and more internally focused.  It is certainly less polished and in places resembles a collection of notes brought together.  But it has a force that comes from true engagement with natural beauty, and from a life whose physical, emotional and imaginative aspects were finely interwoven.  It does have some poetic touches, such as, “feeling the existence of the soul – in the midst of the stream of light – in the way of the rush of the wind.”

Jefferies is forever on the side of life, seeking an enlarged consciousness of its beauty.  This is ultimately gained through the ‘higher’ faculties: the mind (in its infinite aspect), the heart and the soul.  He doesn’t always differentiate between them: ‘heart’, after all, was in the title of the autobiography.  Nor does he ever forget the wonder of the body and its senses.  He reminds us in “The Life of the Soul” that the physical or material is the opening to other, ‘immaterial’ levels of existence.

Jefferies had complete conviction that we possess the power to make real inner discoveries for ourselves, regardless of the dispiriting routines of life.  These possibilities are near, but sometimes seem distant or lost to our daily lives.  He looked forward to a time when the ‘language’ of the soul could be ‘translated’ and fully understood.  To bring this ideal a few steps nearer was, I believe, the true mission of his life.

woods

“THE LIFE OF THE SOUL”

 

“The dawn to me is when I open my eyes, and my first thought is of my prayer, repeated by that thought, the same prayed on the hills and everywhere else so long.

 

The light is the first thing I see, and by the light I say: Give me the reality of the feeling, which comes into existence with life.  I am awakened and I live, give me that fullness of existence which I have so long desired and the idea of which is given by the light and by every loveliness of the earth.

 

But the sun has been up for many hours, and the summer day is already far advanced. I feel that I have lost these hours, this light and beauty which has been pouring over the wheat and the meadows, over the woods and sea, all this time….Must I always feel that it has been going by me like a stream?

 

The wheat-ear as it turns yellow has taken the sunlight and the beauty into itself.  So I would take the beauty into myself.

 

But I have the same desire when there is nothing about me – nothing but walls – when I cannot see the outside earth or the sunlight – the same desire in my mind; it is like a thirst of the mind, like a drawing-in the breath for this beauty in itself.  It does not exist as a separate thing, I know, but I desire that which answers to it – which I read from it – in my mind.  The letters or the words of a book are nothing – but the thought they give is real.  The sunlight and the wheat-ear are the letters and the word: the thought that comes is real; and I feel it when they are not visible.

 

…The pressure of every day, of doing things, puts it aside, but if I stay still as it were for a moment and think of myself, the same wish returns unending, though the surroundings of the moment be commonplace and dusty enough. The thought runs winding through my days.

 

It is in me and within the sunbeam, or the wheat-ear, or the grass.  In the secret, separate entity of the soul, wishing, impelled to it, it almost represents or is my soul…

 

Why have I not gone forth for this soul life, searching for it more by the forest and by the sea?

 

That I may see through the sunlight and the earth, the enclosure with which the mind is surrounded, the wall, into the depth of the soul behind…let me see beyond, deeper through.  It is not the air that blows over the dry, rustling barley; not the warm sunshine; not the earth with the flowers; not the water, nor the light; it is the thing beyond, which I would see and feel…

 

There is not one of us but has a mind-power of which he hardly dreams.  Touching a flower, we seem as if we were absorbing something of this dormant mind-power.  It flows from the flower, like its odour.  The perfume of the flower cannot be written.  The violet cannot be expressed in words, though it is material.  There is no language, yet, to express the feeling which flows from the flower.  From the touch of the green sward a feeling flows as if the great earth sent a mystic perfume – an immaterial influence – through the frame.  More of this influence: more and more; it cannot be translated, yet, but it can be felt.  Some day it will be translated; it is like hovering on the verge of a great truth.

 

We can only get at the immaterial through the material.  How many books must be written to explain it; and even then, would it be explained?

 

So that the thought that there is more yet for the mind can be put in a sentence, but requires pages to explain.  It is not that the mind is limited and cannot understand: it is that the facts have not yet been put before it.  Like a lens, the mind can only examine that which is passed before it.  Those things which are dimly shadowed forth by the flower, the leaf, the very touch of earth – which are felt, rather than perceived – have not yet been put before it…

 

Many of us have partially recognised the existence of a current of unconscious thought, which gradually works its way and decides our course, even against our own waking decisions.  We get a glimpse of such a current now and then, and lose sight of it again…

 

The feeling caused by the view of flower and distant hill-line – the very touch of the green sward – is it not a recognition of our own life? It is seeing – feeling the existence of the soul – in the midst of the stream of light – in the way of the rush of the wind.

 

In daily routine and work we really forget ourselves.  Here the light and air recalls us.  Give us more of our inner selves: not the course, rude, outer covering, and its wishes, but of the inner secret existence.  That inner secret existence desires nothing but beauty.  But the word ‘beauty’ is weak to carry the feeling meant.

 

Those who have ever experienced the depth of this feeling must perforce pray with every glimpse of sunlight and of the unknown beyond.

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‘January in the Sussex Woods’ by Richard Jefferies

woodlands co ukSource: woodlands.co.uk

The lost leaves measure our years; they are gone as the days are gone, and the bare branches silently speak of a new year, slowly advancing to its buds, its foliage, and fruit. Deciduous trees associate with human life as this yew never can. Clothed in its yellowish-green needles, its tarnished green, it knows no hope or sorrow; it is indifferent to winter, and does not look forward to summer. With their annual loss of leaves, and renewal, oak and elm and ash and beech seem to stand by us and to share our thoughts. There is no wind at the edge of the wood, and the few flakes of snow that fall from the overcast sky flutter as they drop, now one side higher and then the other, as the leaves did in the still hours of autumn. The delicacy of the outer boughs of the great trees visible against the dark background of cloud is as beautiful in its own way as the massed foliage of summer. Each slender bough is drawn out to a line; line follows line as shade grows under the pencil, but each of these lines is separate. Great boles of beech, heavy timber at the foot, thus end at their summits in the lightest and most elegant pencilling. Where the birches are tall, sometimes the number and closeness of these bare sprays causes a thickening almost as if there were leaves there. The leaves, in fact, when they come, conceal the finish of the trees; they give colour, but they hide the beautiful structure under them. Each tree at a distance is recognisable by its particular lines; the ash, for instance, grows with its own marked curve.

Some flakes of snow have remained on this bough of spruce, pure white on dull green. Sparingly dispersed, the snow can be seen falling far ahead between the trunks; indeed, the white dots appear to increase the distance the eye can penetrate; it sees farther because there is something to catch the glance. Nothing seems left for food in the woods for bird or animal. Some ivy berries and black privet berries remain, a few haws may be found; for the rest, it is gone; the squirrels have had the nuts, the acorns were taken by the jays, rooks, and pheasants. Bushels of acorns, too, were collected by hand as food for the fallow deer in the park. A great fieldfare rises, like a lesser pigeon; fieldfares often haunt the verge of woods, while the redwing thrushes go out into the meadows. It can scarcely be doubted that both these birds come over to escape the keener cold of the winters in Norway, or that the same cause drives the blackbirds hither. In spring we listen to Norwegian songs—the blackbird and the thrush that please us so much, if not themselves of Scandinavian birth, have had a Scandinavian origin. Any one walking about woods like these in January can understand how, where there are large flocks of birds, they must find the pressure of numbers through the insufficiency of food. They go then to seek a warmer climate and more to eat; more particularly probably for sustenance.

The original and simple theory that the majority of birds migrate for food or warmth is not overthrown by modern observations. That appears to be the primary impulse, though others may be traced or reasonably imagined. To suppose, as has been put forward, that birds are endowed with a migratory instinct for the express purpose of keeping down their numbers, in order, that is, that they may perish in crossing the sea, is really too absurd for serious consideration. If that were the end in view, it would be most easily obtained by keeping them at home, where snow would speedily starve them. On the contrary, it will appear to any one who walks about woods and fields that migration is essential to the preservation of these creatures. By migration, in fact, the species is kept in existence, and room is found for life. Apart from the necessity of food, movement and change is one of the most powerful agencies in renewing health. This we see in our own experience; the condition of the air is especially important, and it is well within reasonable supposition that some birds and animals may wish to avoid certain states of atmosphere. There is, too, the question of moulting and change of plumage, and the possibility that this physiological event may influence the removal to a different climate. Birds migrate principally for food and warmth; secondly, on account of the pressure of numbers (for in good seasons they increase very fast); thirdly, for the sake of health; fourthly, for sexual reasons; fifthly, from the operation of a kind of prehistoric memory; sixthly, from choice. One or other of these causes will explain almost every case of migration.

winter_bird_wallpaper_d2411Source: http://gardensupplyco.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/winter_bird_wallpaper_d2411.jpg

Birds are lively and intellectual, imaginative and affectionate creatures, and all their movements are not dictated by mere necessity. They love the hedge and bush where they were born, they return to the same tree, or the same spot under the eave. On the other hand, they like to roam about the fields and woods, and some of them travel long distances during the day. When the pleasurable cares of the nest are concluded, it is possible that they may in some cases cross the sea solely for the solace of change. Variety of food is itself a great pleasure. By prehistoric memory is meant the unconscious influence of ancient habit impressed upon the race in times when the conformation of land and sea and the conditions of life were different. No space is left for a mysterious agency; migration is purely natural, and acts for the general preservation. Try to put yourself in a bird’s place, and you will see that migration is very natural indeed. If at some future period of the world’s history men should acquire the art of flying, there can be no doubt that migration would become the custom, and whole nations would change their localities. Man has, indeed, been always a migratory animal. History is little beyond the record of migrations, how one race moved on and overcame the race in front of it. In ancient days lots were cast as to who should migrate, and those chosen by this conscription left their homes that the rest remaining might have room and food. Checking the attempted migration of the Helvetii was the beginning of Caesar’s exploits. What men do only at intervals birds do frequently, having greater freedom of movement.

Who can doubt that the wild fowl come south because the north is frozen over? The Laplander and the reindeer migrate together; the Tartars migrate all the year through, crossing the steppes in winding and devious but fixed paths, paths settled for each family, and kept without a map, though invisible to strangers. It is only necessary to watch the common sparrow. In spring his merry chirp and his few notes of song are heard on the roof or in the garden; here he spends his time till the broods are reared and the corn is ripe. Immediately he migrates into the fields. By degrees he is joined by those left behind to rear second broods, and at last the stubble is crowded with sparrows, such flocks no one would believe possible unless they had seen them. He has migrated for food, for his food changes with the season, being mainly insects in spring, and grain and seeds in autumn. Something may, I venture to think, in some cases of migration, be fairly attributed to the influence of a desire for change, a desire springing from physiological promptings for the preservation of health. I am personally subject twice a year to the migratory impulse. I feel it in spring and autumn, say about March, when the leaves begin to appear, and again as the corn is carried, and most strongly as the fields are left in stubble. I have felt it every year since boyhood, often so powerfully as to be quite unable to resist it. Go I must, and go I do, somewhere; if I do not I am soon unwell. The general idea of direction is southerly, both spring and autumn; no doubt the reason is because this is a northern country.

Rabbit Warren 1b cpt Bob CoyleSource: http://data.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/imagecache/reserve_web_large/sites/data.live.wt.precedenthost.co.uk/files/Rabbit%20Warren%201b%20cpt%20Bob%20Coyle.jpg

Some little green stays on the mounds where the rabbits creep and nibble the grasses. Cinquefoil remains green though faded, and wild parsley the freshest looking of all; plantain leaves are found under shelter of brambles, and the dumb nettles, though the old stalks are dead, have living leaves at the ground. Grey-veined ivy trails along, here and there is a frond of hart’s-tongue fern, though withered at the tip, and greenish grey lichen grows on the exposed stumps of trees. These together give a green tint to the mound, which is not so utterly devoid of colour as the season of the year might indicate. Where they fail, brown brake fern fills the spaces between the brambles; and in a moist spot the bunches of rushes are composed half of dry stalks, and half of green. Stems of willow-herb, four feet high, still stand, and tiny long-tailed tits perch sideways on them. Above, on the bank, another species of willow-herb has died down to a short stalk, from which springs a living branch, and at its end is one pink flower. A dandelion is opening on the same sheltered bank; farther on the gorse is sprinkled with golden spots of bloom. A flock of greenfinches starts from the bushes, and their colour shows against the ruddy wands of the osier-bed over which they fly. The path winds round the edge of the wood, where a waggon track goes up the hill; it is deeply grooved at the foot of the hill. These tracks wear deeply into the chalk just where the ascent begins. The chalk adheres to the shoes like mortar, and for some time after one has left it each footstep leaves a white mark on the turf. On the ridge the low trees and bushes have an outline like the flame of a candle in a draught—the wind has blown them till they have grown fixed in that shape. In an oak across the ploughed field a flock of wood-pigeons have settled; on the furrows there are chaffinches, and larks rise and float a few yards farther away. The snow has ceased, and though there is no wind on the surface, the clouds high above have opened somewhat, not sufficient for the sun to shine, but to prolong the already closing afternoon a few minutes. If the sun shines to-morrow morning the lark will soar and sing, though it is January, and the quick note of the chaffinch will be heard as he perches on the little branches projecting from the trunks of trees below the great boughs. Thrushes sing every mild day in December and January, entirely irrespective of the season, also before rain.

Chanctonbury Ring looking east   13 Feb 09   (Richard Reed)   SDS  CNP

View from Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex. Source: http://www.patadventures.com/wp-content/uploads/SOUTH-DOWNS-Chanctonbury-Ring-looking-east-February-2009-Richard-Reed.jpg

A curious instance of a starling having a young brood at this time of the year, recently recorded, seems to suggest that birds are not really deceived by the passing mildness of a few days, but are obliged to prepare nests, finding themselves in a condition to require them. The cause, in short, is physiological, and not the folly of the bird. This starling had had two previous broods, one in October, and now again in December-January. The starling was not, therefore, deceived by the chance of mild weather; her own bodily condition led her to the nest, and had she been a robin or thrush she would have built one instead of resorting to a cranny. It is certain that individuals among birds and animals do occasionally breed at later periods than is usual for the generality of their species. Exceptionally prolific individuals among birds continue to breed into the winter. They are not egregiously deceived any more than we are by a mild interval; the nesting is caused by their individual temperament.

The daylight has lingered on longer than expected, but now the gloom of the short January evening is settling down fast in the wood. The silent and motionless trees rise out of a mysterious shadow, which fills up the spaces between their trunks. Only above, where their delicate outer branches are shown against the dark sky, is there any separation between them. Somewhere in the deep shadow of the underwood a blackbird calls “ching, ching” before he finally settles himself to roost. In the yew the lesser birds are already quiet, sheltered by the evergreen spray; they have also sought the ivy-grown trunks. “Twit, twit,” sounds high overhead as one or two belated little creatures, scarcely visible, pass quickly for the cover of the furze on the hill. The short January evening is of but a few minutes’ duration; just now it was only dusky, and already the interior of the wood is impenetrable to the glance. There rises a loud though distant clamour of rooks and daws, who have restlessly moved in their roost-trees. Darkness is almost on them, yet they cannot quite settle. The cawing and dawing rises to a pitch, and then declines; the wood is silent, and it is suddenly night.

After a Fall of Snow, by Richard Jefferies

robin on fenceSource: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/66/9b/92/669b9251a793ca1ccad7683e7ea9005d.jpg

“In the winter twilight, after a fall of snow, it is difficult to find one’s way across the ploughed fields of the open plain, for it melts on the south of every furrow, leaving a white line where it has ledged on the northern side, till the furrows resemble an endless succession of waves of earth tipped with foam-flecks of snow. These are dazzling to the eyes, and there are few hedges or trees visible for guidance. Snow lingers sometimes for weeks on the northern slopes of the downs—where shallow dry dykes, used as landmarks, are filled with it: the dark mass of the hill is streaked like the black hull of a ship with its line of white paint. Field work during what the men call ‘the dark days afore Christmas’ is necessarily much restricted and they are driven to find some amusement for the long evenings—such as blowing out candles at the ale-house with muzzle-loader guns for wagers of liquor, the wind of the cap alone being sufficient for the purpose at a short distance.

The children never forget Saint Thomas’s Day, which ancient custom has consecrated to alms, and they wend their way from farmhouse to farmhouse throughout the parish; it is usual to keep to the parish, for some of the old local feeling still remains even in these cosmopolitan times. At Christmas sometimes the children sing carols, not with much success so far as melody goes, but otherwise successfully enough; for recollections of the past soften the hearts of the crustiest.

The young men for weeks previously have been practising for the mumming—a kind of rude drama requiring, it would seem, as much rehearsal beforehand as the plays at famous theatres. They dress in a fantastic manner, with masks and coloured ribbons; anything grotesque answers, for there is little attempt at dressing in character. They stroll round to each farmhouse in the parish, and enact the play in the kitchen or brewhouse; after which the whole company are refreshed with ale, and, receiving a few coins, go on to the next homestead. Mumming, however, has much deteriorated, even in the last fifteen or twenty years. On nights when the players were known to be coming, in addition to the farmer’s household and visitors at that season, the cottagers residing near used to assemble, so that there was quite an audience. Now it is a chance whether they come round or not.

A more popular pastime with the young men, and perhaps more profitable, is the formation of a brass band. They practise vigorously before Christmas, and sometimes attain considerable proficiency. At the proper season they visit the farms in the evening, and as the houses are far apart, so that only a few can be called at in the hours available after work, it takes them some time to perambulate the parish. So that for two or three weeks about the end of the old and the beginning of the new year, if one chances to be out at night, every now and then comes the unwonted note of a distant trumpet sounding over the fields. The custom has grown frequent of recent years, and these bands collect a good deal of money.

The ringers from the church come too, with their hand-bells and ring pleasant tunes—which, however, on bells are always plaintive—standing on the crisp frozen grass of the green before the window. They are well rewarded, for bells are great favourites with all country people.”

from Wild Life in a Southern County

Bird-life of the Orchard

Rummer's Lane Orchard 010 small

By Simon Coleman

The old orchard next to the farmhouse of his childhood was one of Jefferies’ favourite places for observing wildlife. He was distressed at the disappearance of many such orchards, as he explains in the essay ‘Nature and Eternity’ (The Hills and the Vale): “Foolish fashion has banished the orchard from the mansion—the orchard which Homer tells us kings once valued as part of their demesne—and has substituted curious evergreens to which the birds do not take readily.” He goes on to describe the abundant and varied bird-life of his own orchard. Despite the close proximity of human habitation, it is ‘a city of the birds and beasts’ where there is continual coming and going.

“As there are wide plains even in thickly populated England where man has built no populous city, so in bird-life there are fields and woods almost deserted by the songsters, who at the same time congregate thickly in a few favourite resorts, where experience gathered in slow time has shown them they need fear nothing from human beings. Such a place, such a city of the birds and beasts, is this old orchard. The bold and handsome bullfinch builds in the low hawthorn hedge which bounds it upon one side. In the walls of the arbour formed of thick ivy and flowering creepers, the robin and thrush hide their nests. On the topmost branches of the tall pear-trees the swallows rest and twitter. The noble blackbird, with full black eye, pecks at the decaying apples upon the sward, and takes no heed of a footstep. Sometimes the loving pair of squirrels who dwell in the fir-copse at the end of the meadow find their way down the hedges—staying at each tree as an inn by the road—into the orchard, and play their fantastic tricks upon the apple-boughs. The flycatchers perch on a branch clear from the tree, and dart at the passing flies. Merriest of all, the tomtits chatter and scold, hanging under the twigs, head downwards, and then away to their nest in the crumbling stone wall which encloses one side of the orchard. They have worked their way by a cranny deep into the thick wall. On the other side runs the king’s highway, and ever and anon the teams go by, making music with their bells. One day a whole nation of martins savagely attacked this wall. Pressure of population probably had compelled them to emigrate from the sand quarry, and the chinks in the wall pleased their eyes. Five-and-thirty brown little birds went to work like miners at twelve or fourteen holes, tapping at the mortar with their bills, scratching out small fragments of stone, twittering and talking all the time, and there undoubtedly they would have founded a colony had not the jingling teams and now and then a barking dog disturbed them. Resting on the bench and leaning back against an apple-tree, it is easy to watch the eager starlings on the chimney-top, and see them tear out the straw of the thatch to form their holes. They are all orators born. They live in a democracy, and fluency of speech leads the populace. Perched on the edge of the chimney, his bronze-tinted wings flapping against his side to give greater emphasis—as a preacher moves his hands—the starling pours forth a flood of eloquence, now rising to screaming-pitch, now modulating his tones to soft persuasion, now descending to deep, low, complaining, regretful sounds—a speech without words—addressed to a dozen birds gravely listening on the ash-tree yonder. He is begging them to come with him to a meadow where food is abundant.”

In the characteristic style of Jefferies’ later works, the rich description leads on to some more profound musings about both nature and the human condition. As ever, nature was infinitely more to him than a place of peaceful recreation. His writing expresses an undying sympathy for all the earth’s life and a deep reverence for nature’s sacred and mysterious powers.

“It is only while in a dreamy, slumbrous, half-mesmerized state that nature’s ancient papyrus roll can be read—only when the mind is at rest, separated from care and labour; when the body is at ease, luxuriating in warmth and delicious languor; when the soul is in accord and sympathy with the sunlight, with the leaf, with the slender blades of grass, and can feel with the tiniest insect which climbs up them as up a mighty tree. As the genius of the great musicians, without an articulated word or printed letter, can carry with it all the emotions, so now, lying prone upon the earth in the shadow, with quiescent will, listening, thoughts and feelings rise respondent to the sunbeams, to the leaf, the very blade of grass. Resting the head upon the hand, gazing down upon the ground, the strange and marvellous inner sight of the mind penetrates the solid earth, grasps in part the mystery of its vast extension upon either side, bearing its majestic mountains, its deep forests, its grand oceans, and almost feels the life which in ten thousand thousand forms revels upon its surface. Returning upon itself, the mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder—akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself. How grand and holy is this life! how sacred the temple which contains it!”

The Benediction of the Light, by Richard Jefferies

“I saw a brown and dry oak leaf caught in the bushes in December. A sunbeam lit on it and it glowed among the dark branches. Immediately my thought responded and my mind too, received the light. Touching the brown leaf, brittle to the fingers, I gathered the ray from it. In a cold and cheerless upper room the afternoon and sinking sun cast a beam upon the wall. I sat a little while where it reached me, and it sank into me. I saw the sun level on to the fir-tree tops. There was a low sound from them as the air passed; it seemed as if I was looking to the sun. In the morning I can in the winter just see the sun arise; if it is cloudy or not, my first glance is there. I pause on the staircase because the window faces the south and the sunshine falls through it. The thought of the sunshine, even in winter, is beauty.”

THE YELLOWHAMMER

By Simon Coleman

YellowhammerPhoto by Andy Bright, Morston Downs, Norfolk, England, June 2002 (www.birdforum.net)

In one of his early ‘country books’, Wild Life in a Southern County, Jefferies demonstrates his fascination with all types of bird and animal life. The rich bird life of his Wiltshire homeland always claimed a fair share of his attention. A common bird, the yellowhammer, is here given an attractive, though largely factual, description.

“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. Yellowhammers haunt the cornfields principally, though they are not absent from the meadows.”

In his later essay, “The Pageant of Summer”, the yellowhammer contributes to the day-long chorus of birdsong in the fields. He describes the bird as “the most persistent individually” but considers the blackbirds to be “the masters of the fields.”

“Without the violet all the bluebells and cowslips could not make a spring, and without the blackbird even the nightingale would be but half welcome. It is not yet noon, these songs have been ceaseless since dawn; this evening, after the yellowhammer has sung the sun down, when the moon rises and the faint stars appear, still the cuckoo will call, and the grasshopper lark, the landrail’s “crake, crake” will echo from the mound, a warbler or a blackcap will utter his notes, and even at the darkest of the summer night the swallows will hardly sleep in their nests.”

From the above two quotes you would not think that the yellowhammer made a special impression on Jefferies, with so many delicious sounds to listen to the whole length of the spring and summer. However, in a still later essay, “Wildflowers”, the yellowhammer suddenly becomes prominent in some deep and moving reminiscences of his youth.

“The greenfinches came to the fallen swathe so near to us they seemed to have no fear; but I remember the yellowhammers most, whose colour, like that of the wild flowers and the sky, has never faded from my memory. The greenfinches sank into the fallen swathe, the loose grass gave under their weight and let them bathe in flowers.
One yellowhammer sat on a branch of ash the livelong morning, still singing in the sun; his bright head, his clean bright yellow, gaudy as Spain, was drawn like a brush charged heavily with colour across the retina, painting it deeply, for there on the eye’s memory it endures, though that was boyhood and this is manhood, still unchanged…. This one yellowhammer still sits on the ash branch in Stewart’s Mash over the sward, singing in the sun, his feathers freshly wet with colour, the same sun-song, and will sing to me so long as the heart shall beat.”

So, after all, the yellowhammer has an important place in the vast tapestry of his childhood memory. This piece of reminiscence can perhaps be likened to how Jefferies recalled seeing sunspots, again after the lapse of a long period of time: “if I could only get back those moments they would be to me more precious than gold.” (See Rebecca’s earlier blog post on Sun Spots).

‘Nature in the Louvre’

acroupie

Nature in the Louvre

An essay by Richard Jefferies, chosen and discussed by Simon Coleman

Jefferies’ writing is littered with references to Classical Greece: we find them in novels, essays and his autobiography. Homer’s hero Odysseus was a continual source of inspiration to him, while Plato and other philosophers furnished his mind with material for true thought. In their human sculpture the Greeks’ genius for combining realism with a serene, almost ‘divine’, quality had a magnetic effect on Jefferies’ imagination. His love of Greek aesthetics is demonstrated in a remarkable essay, ‘Nature in the Louvre’ (Field and Hedgerow). On a rare trip abroad Jefferies chanced upon a sculpture in the Greek galleries of the Louvre that at once awakened his imagination. This was the ‘Venus Accroupie’, or ‘Crouching Venus’, a work that so powerfully expressed Jefferies’ sense of the ideal human life that the much more celebrated works in the Museum appeared as mere polished conventions. They were not true to life. The Accroupie, however, being completely naturalistic in form and pose, casts a spell over Jefferies. The female figure is stooping to allow a child to climb on to her back. This is revealed by presence of the tiny hand still clasping her back which is all that remains of the child. Jefferies describes his discovery of the statue:

“…in the centre of the gallery, was a statue in the sense in which I understand the word—the beautiful made tangible in human form. I said at once, ‘That is my statue. There lies all Paris for me; I shall find nothing further.’ I was then at least thirty yards distant, with the view partly broken, but it was impossible to doubt or question lines such as those. On a gradual approach the limbs become more defined, and the torso grows, and becomes more and more human—this is one of the remarkable circumstances connected with the statue. There is life in the wide hips, chest, and shoulders; so marvellous is the illusion that not only the parts that remain appear animated, but the imagination restores the missing and mutilated pieces, and the statue seems entire. I did not see that the hand was missing and the arms gone; the idea of form suggested by the existing portions was carried on over these, and filled the vacant places.
Going nearer, the large hips grow from stone to life, the deep folds of the lower torso have but this moment been formed as she stooped, and the impulse is to extend the hands to welcome this beautiful embodiment of loving kindness. There, in full existence, visible, tangible, seems to be all that the heart has imagined of the deepest and highest emotions.”

To Jefferies, such beauty is not a mental quality ascribed to things: it is a living principle or essence. The creative mind of the sculptor has communicated this magical ‘truth’ in his work and Jefferies recognises it immediately. It would appear that the minds, or perhaps the hearts, of the sculptor and Jefferies have met in this personification of perfect beauty. Jefferies’ heart sees its own reflection. The work exudes physical strength, vitality and the simple human love expressed by the moment of action it captures: the woman taking the child on her back. Jefferies describes his feelings during his succession of visits to view the statue. It has become a place of pilgrimage, and he was drawn there by the same indefinable impulse that led him to the hills, woods and streams in his youth. By his third visit he is able to gain more insight into his gradually unfolding experience:

“At a third visit it seemed to me that the statue had grown much more beautiful in the few days which had elapsed since I first saw it. Pondering upon the causes of this increasing interest, I began to see that one reason was because it recalled to my memory the loveliness of nature. Old days which I had spent wandering among deep meadows and by green woods came back to me. In such days the fancy had often occurred to me that, besides the loveliness of leaves and flowers, there must be some secret influence drawing me on as a hand might beckon. The light and colour suspended in the summer atmosphere, as colour is in stained but translucent glass, were to me always on the point of becoming tangible in some beautiful form. The hovering lines and shape never became sufficiently defined for me to know what form it could be, yet the colours and the light meant something which I was not able to fix. I was now sitting in a gallery of stone, with cold marbles, cold floors, cold light from the windows. Without there were only houses, the city of Paris—a city above all other cities farthest from woods and meads. Here, nevertheless, there came back to me this old thought born in the midst of flowers and wind-rustled leaves, and I saw that with it the statue before me was in concord. The living original of this work was the human impersonation of the secret influence which had beckoned me on in the forest and by running streams. She expressed in loveliness of form the colour and light of sunny days; she expressed the deep aspiring desire of the soul for the perfection of the frame in which it is encased, for the perfection of its own existence.”

This deepening of his awareness is now followed by the recognition of the human position within nature. It is somehow sad to know that the wonders of the earth have not been put here for our benefit: the leaves cannot love us. This knowledge, however, should help us to see the beauty of human life; the statue in front of him being its very embodiment.

“The sun rolls on in the far dome of heaven, and now day and now night sweeps with alternate bands over the surface of hill, and wood, and sea; the sea beats in endless waves, which first began to undulate a thousand thousand years ago, starting from the other rim of Time; the green leaves repeat the beauty that gladdened man in ancient days. But for themselves they are, and not for us. Their glory fills the mind with rapture but for a while, and it learns that they are, like carven idols, wholly careless and indifferent to our fate. Then is the valley incomplete, and the void sad! Its hills speak of death as well as of life, and we know that for man there is nothing on earth really but man; the human species owns and possesses nothing but its species. When I saw this I turned with threefold concentration of desire and love towards that expression of hope which is called beauty, such as is worked in marble here. For I think beauty is truthfully an expression of hope, and that is why it is so enthralling—because while the heart is absorbed in its contemplation, unconscious but powerful hope is filling the breast. So powerful is it as to banish for the time all care, and to make this life seem the life of the immortals.”

This extraordinary essay is one of the finest examples of Jefferies’ mature style. He superbly controls the tension between artistic sensibility and the ‘higher’ principle suggested by the artwork. There is also the need to communicate a more universal message to humanity as a whole. He concludes his pilgrimage with his fourth visit and calls for human efforts that extend far beyond conventional good works. Something is demanded by the heart; something real that answers to the truth of nature, and of our own nature.

“Returning the next morning, my thoughts went on, and found that this ideal of nature required of us something beyond good. The conception of moral good did not satisfy one while contemplating it. The highest form known to us at present is pure unselfishness, the doing of good, not for any reward, now or hereafter, nor for the completion of an imaginary scheme. This is the best we know. But how unsatisfactory! Filled with the aspirations called forth by the ideal before me, it appeared as if even the saving of life is a little work compared to what the heart would like to do….Though I cannot name the ideal good, it seems to me that it will be in some way closely associated with the ideal beauty of nature.”