“Begin wholly afresh. Go straight to the sun, the immense forces of the universe, to the Entity unknown; go higher than a god; deeper than prayer; and open a new day.”
(‘The Story of My Heart’)
Jefferies reached a point in his life when he felt himself standing face to face with the great unknown, having erased much of traditional learning and culture from his mind. With this feeling came a need to search for ‘higher’ ideas that might improve human life. This search became central to his life and it was heart-driven. It was individual; sometimes passionate, sometimes calm and philosophical.
Reading ‘The Story of My Heart’, we find that the concentrated energy of the individual search gradually flows outwards to engage with the more universal questions of human existence. It was not a purely personal journey.
“How pleasant it would be each day to think, To-day I have done something that will tend to render future generations more happy. The very thought would make this hour sweeter. It is absolutely necessary that something of this kind should be discovered. First, we must lay down the axiom that as yet nothing has been found; we have nothing to start with; all has to be begun afresh. All courses or methods of human life have hitherto been failures. Some course of life is needed based on things that are, irrespective of tradition. The physical ideal must be kept steadily in view.”
We could obviously take issue with the idea that ‘nothing has been found’ to improve human life, but Jefferies is speaking from the heart; I would prefer to say that he is thinking from the heart. His body and its senses, his thought and emotions are all within the heart, and through their combined actions he is able to conceive a better human life: a more beautiful, free and hope-embracing life that moves away from past beliefs. To this vision the magical, calm and dynamic presence of Nature is central.
At some level of being, human life is in harmony with the laws of Nature. I don’t mean the scientific laws of nature which are the product of purely intellectual drives. Let’s turn to the great American poet, Walt Whitman, who, in his ‘Leaves of Grass’, admired the cohesion and order of Nature, the earth and the universe.
“The soul is always beautiful,
The universe is duly in order, every thing is in its place,
What has arrived is in its place and what waits shall be in its place”
He sees no imperfection anywhere in Nature.
“Pleasantly and well-suited I walk,
Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,
The whole universe indicates that it is good,
The past and the present indicate that it is good.
How beautiful and perfect are the animals!
How perfect the earth, and the minutest thing upon it!
What is called good is perfect, and what is called bad is just as perfect,
The vegetables and minerals are all perfect, and the imponderable
Slowly and surely they have pass’d on to this, and slowly and surely
they yet pass on.”
(‘Song of Myself’)
The natural order of the universe is in accord with the quality of the human heart which understands beauty and recognises the subtle truths woven into our lives. Whitman was less concerned than Jefferies with actively searching for something of true value to mankind – he saw beauty and meaning everywhere. Their language is different but both were exceptionally well attuned to their physical senses and responded instinctively to Nature. From these responses they created great spiritual language, at times bringing mankind and Nature together in a perfect fusion.
The principal desire shared by Jefferies and Whitman was to make human life as perfect as possible; in other words, as beautiful and natural as possible. To some this is simply pointless idealism but, in the view of Jefferies and Whitman, the existence of an ideal in the heart is a requirement for a full and healthy life. If the perfect life is even to be imagined, Nature’s beauty must be invoked. In the following passage from ‘The Story of My Heart’, Jefferies, while looking at Greek sculptures (which express both the ideal and the real), has a vision of supreme calm and beauty. To me, this is real spiritual language: the language of the heart.
“The statues are not, it is said, the best; broken too, and mutilated, and seen in a dull, commonplace light. But they were shape—divine shape of man and woman; the form of limb and torso, of bust and neck, gave me a sighing sense of rest. These were they who would have stayed with me under the shadow of the oaks while the blackbirds fluted and the south air swung the cowslips. They would have walked with me among the reddened gold of the wheat. They would have rested with me on the hill-tops and in the narrow valley grooved of ancient times. They would have listened with me to the sob of the summer sea drinking the land. These had thirsted of sun, and earth, and sea, and sky. Their shape spoke this thirst and desire like mine—if I had lived with them from Greece till now I should not have had enough of them. Tracing the form of limb and torso with the eye gave me a sense of rest.
Sometimes I came in from the crowded streets and ceaseless hum; one glance at these shapes and I became myself. Sometimes I came from the Reading-room [of the British Museum], where under the dome I often looked up from the desk and realised the crushing hopelessness of books, useless, not equal to one bubble borne along on the running brook I had walked by, giving no thought like the spring when I lifted the water in my hand and saw the light gleam on it. Torso and limb, bust and neck instantly returned me to myself; I felt as I did lying on the turf listening to the wind among the grass; it would have seemed natural to have found butterflies fluttering among the statues. The same deep desire was with me. I shall always go to speak to them; they are a place of pilgrimage; wherever there is a beautiful statue there is a place of pilgrimage.”