In Jefferies’ writings a shadow, as an indicator of light, is something ordinary, yet it contains the extraordinary. Jefferies would often notice and record the position and length of shadows cast by trees. In The Old House at Coate the shadows of the elm trees and the old oak in the field boundary reflect the position of the summer sun:
“In the morning, the shadows of the elms by the rick-yard on the east side of the roadway extended almost across the meadow: at noon, in summer, even the wide- spreading oak in the first hedgerow to the south scarcely darkened the grass”
In Bevis the shifting seasons are echoed by the changing length of the oak’s shadow:
“At noon he was twice as high as the southern oak, and every day at noontide the shadows gradually shortened. The nightingale sang in the musical April night, the cowslips opened, and the bees hummed over the meadows.”
A shadow is not simply caused by an obstruction to the light, it is a phenomenon in itself – it tells us things about the world in which we live. Shadow is an essential condition of contrast to the light, which can illuminate other states or aspects of ourselves. In The Dewy Morn, after a period of separation and misunderstanding, Felise and Martial finally come to understand and accept one another. The two are reconciled in a peaceful green spot, overlooking undulating cornfields and meadows, beneath the shade of a beech tree. Jefferies writes that they sit on a green bank, near a sundial, where patches of sunlight dapple the grass. The scene suggests the importance of being able to give oneself up fully to the moment, even with the knowledge that one day all the beauty will fade into the past:
“So great was her joy in her love, it seemed the width of the dome of the sky was not wide enough to express it. Upon the green and tarnished face of the ancient sundial there was written in worn letters, Nihil nisi mnbra — Nothing without shadow; no, not even love. The fervour of passion must needs cast the deepest shadow beside it. Let us welcome the shadow if only we can have the sunlight of love. …. Till he came the fields, the woods, the hills, the broad sea were incomplete; to all he gave a meaning. She endowed him with all that she perceived in the glory and mystery around her by day and by night. Of old time the shadow of the gnomon glided over marble; sometimes they built great structures to show the passage of the shadow more distinctly — observatories of shadow. Not only on this round horizontal disk of greenish metal, not only on those ancient marble slabs, but over the whole earth the shadow advances, for the earth is the gnomon of night. The sunlight and the night, year by year, century by century, cycle by cycle; how long is it? Can anyone say? So long has love, too, endured, passing on and handed down from heart to heart.
The long Roll of Love reaching back into the profoundest abyss of Time, upon it fresh names are written day by day.
Felise’s love was pure indeed; yet what is there that the purest love is not capable of for the one to whom the soul is devoted?
Self-immolation, self-sacrifice, death — is there anything love refuses?
Still the shadow slips on the green rust of the dial. Let even life pass from us if only we can have love.
Felise saw the beauty of the earth, and with that beauty she loved; the cool green flags in the meadow-brook; the reeds which moved forward and advanced as if about to step forth from the water as they swayed; the deep blue of the sky; the ruddy gold of the wheat under the pale yellow haze.
The rolling boom of the thunder came through the fields of light, the earth glowed warmer.
That the wonderful mechanism of the mind, the heart, of life, should be capable of emotion so divine, and yet should so soon perish — is it not unutterably cruel?
So many, and so many, who have loved in the long passage of time, but are gone as the shadow goes from the dial when the sun sinks. Are, then, our noblest feelings to fade and become void?
Upon the sundial there were curious graven circles and interwoven angles, remnants of the ancient lore which saw fate in the stars and read things above nature in nature. Symbols and signs are still needed, for the earth and life are still mysterious; they cannot be written, they require the inarticulate sign of the magician.
Let us not outlive love in our days, and come to look back with sorrow on those times.
You have seen the ships upon the sea; they sail hither and thither thousands of miles. Do they find aught equal to love? Can they bring back precious gems to rival it from the rich south?
The reapers have been in the corn these thousand years, the miners in the earth, the toilers in the city; in all the labour and long-suffering is there anything like unto love? Any reward or profit in the ships, the mines, the warehouses?
What are the institutions of man, the tawdry state, the false law, the subsidized superstition, and poor morality, that pale shadow of truth — what are these by love?
Could but love stay, could but love have its will, and no more would be needed for eternity.”
Through the image of a shadow continually advancing over the earth Jefferies imagines a vast dial to be an ever present reminder of our earthly condition. The sundial motto – ‘nothing without shadow; no, not even love’ – suggests that even love needs a shadow by which to be seen and appreciated. Until this point in the novel, Felise and Martial have been out of harmony with one another and unable to trust one another’s motives or feelings. It has taken a journey through the darkness of misunderstanding, loneliness and despair in order to reach the other side and emerge into the light and air of romance. The sundial, with its indicator of shade – the gnomon – is thus imbued with significance for understanding the passing of life and the meaning of love.
In other works shadows hold something mysterious – they beckon and entice the thought outwards to somewhere beyond the self. Reading and writing outside under an apple tree, among the shadows of summer, tells Jefferies something about the principles and limitations of human existence.
“I can never read in summer out of doors. Though in shadow the bright light fills it, summer shadows are broadest daylight. The page is so white and hard, the letters so very black, the meaning and drift not quite intelligible, because neither eye nor mind will dwell upon it. Human thoughts and imaginings written down are pale and feeble in bright summer light. The eye wanders away, and rests more lovingly on greensward and green lime leaves.”
The heat of a summer’s day is bearable in the shade and affords the perfect balance in temperature. However, ‘the very shade of the pen on the paper’ expresses to him the difficulty of writing down the ‘delicacy and beauty of thought or feeling’. The printed words of the book are dark on the bright page:
‘there is the shade and the brilliant gleaming whiteness; now tell me in plain written words the simple contrast of the two. Not in twenty pages, for the bright light shows the paper in its common fibre-ground, coarse aspect, in its reality, not as a mind-tablet.’
In the contrast between light and shade the vitality of the living world suddenly becomes visible and luminous. The flowering veronica and its neighbouring grass blade ‘throw light and beauty on each other’ – they demonstrate their mirror existence, as a sundial and its gnomon are mutually dependent. Light and beauty are thus two parts of the same whole.
In The Story of My Heart beauty is a principle expressed through harmony between light and shade:
“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”
A shadow is a mark upon the earth that leaves no imprint or trace. Yet without shadow we would not know the light. The very nature of this contrast suggests to Jefferies a condition in which our hearts and minds are open to the harmonic energies around us, which can contribute to well-being, health, and wholeness of spirit. Jefferies considers whether it might be possible to somehow keep this ideal condition active within the human heart.
In his essay ‘Wildflowers’ Jefferies associates the birds’ innate desire to sing with their recognition of the light:
“I do not want change: I want the same old and loved things, the same wild-flowers, the same trees and soft ash-green; the turtle-doves, the blackbirds, the coloured yellowhammer sing, sing, singing so long as there is light to cast a shadow on the dial, for such is the measure of his song, and I want them in the same place.”
The yellowhammer is content to sing for as long the sun casts its light upon the earth. ‘Such is the measure of his song’ – measure meaning not only of time, but the meaning and reality of the song itself: what the bird imparts through its instinctive connection with the elements and condition of existence. Such, we might say, is the measure of life. The message being that we need to embrace the brief window of light in which we dwell, before the sun sets and we can no longer sing.