A MORE BEAUTIFUL LIFE 

                               SIMON COLEMAN                                

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“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”

(‘The Sleepers’)

 

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

      fluids perfect;

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.”

sculptures-of-the-summer-garden-in-st-petersburg

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‘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.”

Lost Civilisations and the “inner heart of man” Rebecca Welshman

snow on branches

In 1867, when the eighteen-year-old Richard Jefferies was thinking about writing his spiritual autobiography, an anonymous article titled ‘Snow’ in Sharpe’s London Magazine identified the hopeful promise of a new era in store for the soul:

“The snow has fallen under a cold temperature, and the flakes are perfectly crystallised; every shrub we pass bears wreaths which glitter as gorgeously as the nebula in Perseus; but in another hour of sunshine every one of those fragile outlines will disappear, and the white surface glitter no longer with stars, but with star-dust. On such a day, the universe seems to hold but three pure tints — blue, white, and green. The loveliness of the universe seems simplified to its last extreme of refined delicacy. That sensation we poor mortals have, of being just on the edge of infinite beauty, yet with always a lingering film between, never presses down more closely than on days like this. Everything seems perfectly prepared to satiate the soul with inexpressible felicity if we could only, by one infinitesimal step farther, reach the mood to dwell in it.”

The condition of ‘being just on the edge of infinite beauty’, with an obstructive ‘lingering film’ between the mind and what lay essentially beyond it, was akin to the ‘thin […] crust’ that Jefferies perceived between the artificiality of mankind and the natural world:

“There is but a thin, transparent sheet of brittle glass between the artificial man and the air, the light, the trees, and grass. So between him and the other innumerable organisms which live and breathe there is but a thin feeble crust of prejudice and social custom. Between him and those irresistible laws which keep the sun upon its course there is absolutely no bar whatever.” (‘Nature and Eternity’)

Jefferies’s desire to ‘burst through’ this crust — to allow the ‘li[f]e’ and ‘breath’ of natural things to enter and work through the body and mind — was sustained by beauty. Statuary offered a permanent representation of past beauty which would otherwise have been lost — what Jefferies described after seeing the Venus de Milo in Paris as ‘the beautiful made tangible in human form’. Contemplating statuary afforded time to formulate the human ideal into something more tangible than the fleeting glimpses he had experienced in the natural world. Sculpted from the earth’s raw material, these figures embodied wealth, enlightenment, healthy physique, and the warmth of the Greek climate, which encouraged his belief in the possibility of improvement for the soul:

“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 … These had thirsted of sun, and earth, and sea, and sky. Their shape spoke this thirst and desire like mine.” (The Story of My Heart)

Jefferies perceived that archaeology, as a process of retrieval, brought to light former conditions of life and furnished the mind with what Andrew Rossabi has termed ‘new saints and new ideals’. Discoveries of lost civilisations during the 1840s and 1850s set the scene for systematic explorations into what became known as ‘the old world’. One of the best known was the ancient civilisation of Lykia, now South West Turkey, discovered by Charles Fellows between 1838 and 1844. Fellows published his researches in 1839, and donated the worked marble, plaster casts, drawings and plans to the British Museum in 1843. The sculpture and architectural items caused a sensation when they were displayed and came to influence Victorian cemetery architecture in tombs of the Gothic revival.

parthenon sculptures

Source: http://www.athensguide.org

In The Story of My Heart, Jefferies uses the idea of discovering a new civilisation as a metaphor for his ambition to realise a ‘fourth idea’:

“Three ideas the Cavemen primeval wrested from the unknown, the night which is round us still in daylight — the existence of the soul, immortality, the deity. […] I desire to advance further, and to wrest a fourth, and even still more than a fourth, from the darkness of thought. I want more ideas of soul-life. I am certain that there are more yet to be found. A great life — an entire civilization — lies just outside the pale of common thought. Cities and countries, inhabitants, intelligences, culture — an entire civilization. Except by illustrations drawn from familiar things, there is no way of indicating a new idea. I do not mean actual cities, actual civilization. Such life is different from any yet imagined. A nexus of ideas exists of which nothing is known — a vast system of ideas — a cosmos of thought.”

The desire to ‘wrest’ truth ‘from the darkness of thought’ is analogous to the advancing knowledge of past civilisations which came to light through excavation. Archaeology and the advancement of knowledge — ‘Cities and countries, inhabitants, intelligences, culture’ — had provided Jefferies with the factual basis for what he termed the ‘first three ideas’, which he believed to be the soul, immortality, and the concept of a deity. The nebulous ‘fourth idea’ could only be given shape by ‘illustrations drawn from familiar things’. Evidence of early mankind’s spiritual relationship with the earth continued to emerge through discoveries of Bronze Age and Roman objects bearing sun and animal motifs. Yet the ancient Greek discoveries, with their own context of written history and philosophy, were perceived to be more relevant to the Victorian era, and their emphasis on the beauty of the human form suggested a more fundamentally human connection with the universe.

Although Jefferies recognised the sculptures to be a poor representation of their original state — ‘The statues are not, it is said, the best; broken too, and mutilated, and seen in a dull, commonplace light’ — it was more widely understood that part of their function had been to reflect the light with dazzling effect. Henry George Lidell recognised the word ‘marble’ to be derived from a Greek word meaning ‘shining stone’ and from the verb ‘to flash, sparkle, gleam’. Stone lions, which form part of the Lykian displays at the British Museum, have missing stones from their mouths. These are thought to have reflected and held the light, and would have flashed in the sun to catch the attention of passers-by. The fragmentary nature of the collections appealed to Jefferies, whose own vision was one of tantalising glimpses of a more complete and fulfilling human state. In imagining archaeology Jefferies found potential for the mind to explore new depths of the soul. In his novel The Scarlet Shawl (1874), in a digression about the ‘buried’ nature of the ‘inner heart’ of man, Jefferies uses the images of accumulated dust and the ‘buried city’ to symbolise the potential for humans to reconnect with their inner selves:
“Deep, deep down under the apparent man…there is a buried city, a city of the inner heart, lost and forgotten these many days. There, on the walls of the chambers of that city are pictures, fresh as they were painted by the alchemy of light in the long, long years gone by…. Yet deep as it lies hidden, heavy, and dull, and impenetrable as the crust may be, there shall come a time when the light of the sun, seen through a little crevice, shall pour in its brilliance upon them, and shall exhibit these chambers of imagery to the man walking in daytime. He shall awake, and shall walk through these chambers he builded in the olden times; and the pictures upon the walls shall pierce his soul.”

The image of the buried city was an implicit reference to Troy, the infamous city buried by sand, excavated by Schliemann in 1870. Unearthed from beneath the sands in Turkey, the extent of Troy and its treasures were revealed to the public in 1873, the year Jefferies was writing The Scarlet Shawl. Jefferies uses the image of temporarily lost treasures to suggest an imminent dawn of new life for the soul. The ‘fresh’ pictures, which appear as vibrant as the day they were painted, suggest that the potential for enlightenment – what Jefferies termed in 1875 ‘a beautiful springtime yet in store for the soul’ — lies dormant within all of us, just beneath the surface.

snowdrops stile Dorset