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

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

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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.

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“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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The Sun and the Brook

An Invisible Touch

by Simon Coleman

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Some of Jefferies’ most evocative and profound writing can be found in his essays – a format which suited his talent for combining vivid description with a powerful idealism. In the 1880s he developed a more poetic and fluid style, enabling him to create prose pieces that suggested, in a subtle way, a meeting of nature and the human mind. Two such essays, ‘Meadow Thoughts’ and ‘On the Downs’, have been featured in other posts. Another example is ‘The Sun and the Brook’ (The Hills and the Vale), a short essay in which sky and earth, nature and the human senses, the real and the ideal, seem to merge into each other. The brook is the one near his childhood home at Coate and is lovingly remembered, not only as a clear, beautiful stream, but one whose banks and surrounding fields the young Jefferies knew intimately.

“The sun first sees the brook in the meadow where some roach swim under a bulging root of ash. Leaning against the tree, and looking down into the water, there is a picture of the sky. Its brightness hides the sandy floor of the stream as a picture conceals the wall where it hangs, but, as if the water cooled the rays, the eye can bear to gaze on the image of the sun. Over its circle thin threads of summer cloud are drawn; it is only the reflection, yet the sun seems closer seen in the brook, more to do with us, like the grass, and the tree, and the flowing stream. In the sky it is so far, it cannot be approached, nor even gazed at, so that by the very virtue and power of its own brilliance it forces us to ignore, and almost forget it. The summer days go on, and no one notices the sun. The sweet water slipping past the green flags, with every now and then a rushing sound of eager haste, receives the sky, and it becomes a part of the earth and of life. No one can see his own face without a glass; no one can sit down and deliberately think of the soul till it appears a visible thing. It eludes—the mind cannot grasp it. But hold a flower in the hand—a rose, this later honeysuckle, or this the first harebell—and in its beauty you can recognize your own soul reflected as the sun in the brook. For the soul finds itself in beautiful things.”

The scene is in late summer, “the days of the convolvulus, of ripening berry, and dropping nut. In the gateways, ears of wheat hang from the hawthorn boughs, which seized them from the passing load. The broad aftermath is without flowers; the flowers are gone to the uplands and the untilled wastes.” He reminds us of the earlier part of the summer and its “long drama” that proceeded the day described. Restrained emotion has a powerful presence in this essay. Jefferies does not indulge in crude romantic sentiment and metaphor; instead, he maintains the tension between physical nature and the higher aspiration that it seems to symbolize.

“The long, loving touch of the sun has left some of its own mystic attraction in the brook. Resting here, and gazing down into it, thoughts and dreams come flowing as the water flows. Thoughts without words, mobile like the stream, nothing compact that can be grasped and stayed: dreams that slip silently as water slips through the fingers. The grass is not grass alone; the leaves of the ash above are not leaves only. From tree, and earth, and soft air moving, there comes an invisible touch which arranges the senses to its waves as the ripples of the lake set the sand in parallel lines. The grass sways and fans the reposing mind; the leaves sway and stroke it, till it can feel beyond itself and with them, using each grass blade, each leaf, to abstract life from earth and ether. These then become new organs, fresh nerves and veins running afar out into the field, along the winding brook, up through the leaves, bringing a larger existence. The arms of the mind open wide to the broad sky.
Some sense of the meaning of the grass, and leaves of the tree, and sweet waters hovers on the confines of thought, and seems ready to be resolved into definite form. There is a meaning in these things, a meaning in all that exists, and it comes near to declare itself. Not yet, not fully, nor in such shape that it may be formulated—if ever it will be—but sufficiently so to leave, as it were, an unwritten impression that will remain when the glamour is gone, and grass is but grass, and a tree a tree.”

His deep love of a place, of home, of a simple stream in a field, has led us into profound and beautiful possibilities for the imagination. The sun makes the day and Jefferies, as if taking on the role of the sun, has re-made it for us. Perhaps we could see this as a process of ‘imaginative realism’. Nature always appeared as intensely real to Jefferies, a fact that distinguishes him from eastern mysticism which tends to view the physical world as illusory. The complete immersion of Jefferies’ senses and mind in the scene has created a subtle union of man and nature. This was not really the product of one day only; he had wandered the bank of the brook day after day, summer after summer, until the water, leaves and grasses became part of his being. Jefferies was always able to think outside the span of his lifetime. We can be sure that he wanted more people in the future to share such an experience. He writes in ‘Hours of Spring’, near the end of his life, “I hope that those to come in future years may see wider and enjoy fuller than I have done; and so much the more gladly would I do all that I could to enlarge the life that shall be then.”