The Dawn

Introduced by Simon Coleman

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Photo source: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-2718089-stock-footage-grass-sunset.html

‘THE DAWN’ by Richard Jefferies (full text)
Jefferies’ late essay, ‘The Dawn’, was unpublished in his lifetime but appeared in Edward Thomas’ 1909 anthology titled ‘The Hills and the Vale’.  In ‘The Dawn’, the faint light of daybreak awakens Jefferies’ imagination which then wanders freely through space and time.  He muses on the mysteries and possibilities present in light and widens his thought to take in other properties of nature such as magnetism and electricity.  He even considers how we might communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  While the prose is unpolished and betrays his struggle to find suitable language to express his ideas, his thirst for knowledge and truth is inspiring.  And this is not a quest for dry scientific or academic knowledge: Jefferies wants answers that might one day be translated into real benefits for mankind.  This is the main theme of the second part of his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’: how to improve the physical and spiritual life of man.  ‘The Dawn’ is the type of work that allows an insight into the raw material of an author’s imagination.  It shows Jefferies, once again, as a free thinker, always looking for another circle of ideas beyond those already known, always ahead of his time.

 

“There came to my bedside this morning a visitant that has been present at the bedside of everyone who has lived for ten thousand years. In the darkness I was conscious of a faint light not visible if I looked deliberately to find it, but seen sideways, and where I was not gazing. It slipped from direct glance as a shadow may slip from a hand-grasp, but it was there floating in the atmosphere of the room. I could not say that it shone on the wall or lit the distant corner. Light is seen by reflection, but this light was visible of itself like a living thing, a visitant from the unknown. The dawn was in the chamber, and by degrees this intangible and slender existence would enlarge and deepen into day. Ever since I used to rise early to bathe, or shoot, or see the sunrise, the habit has remained of waking at the same hour, so that I see the dawn morning after morning, though I may sleep again immediately. Sometimes the change of the seasons makes it broad sunlight,
sometimes it is still dark; then again the faint grey light is there, and I know that the distant hills are becoming defined along the sky. But though so familiar, that spectral light in the silence has never lost its meaning, the violets are sweet year by year though never so many summers pass away; indeed, its meaning grows wider and more difficult as the time goes on. For think, this spectre of the light – light’s double-ganger – has stood by the couch of every human being for thousands and thousands of years. Sleeping or waking, happily dreaming, or wrenched with pain, whether they have noticed it or not, the finger of this light has pointed towards them. When they were building the pyramids, five thousand years ago, straight the arrow of light shot from the sun, lit their dusky forms, and glowed on the endless sand. Endless as that desert sand may be, innumerable in multitude its grains, there was and is a ray of light for each. A ray for every invisible atom that dances in the air – for the million million changing facets of the million ocean waves. Immense as these numbers may be, they are not incomprehensible. The priestess at Delphi in her moment of inspiration declared that she knew the number of the sands. Such number falls into insignificance before the mere thought of light, its speed, its quantity, its existence over space, and yet the idea of light is easy to the mind. The mind is the priestess of the Delphic temple of our bodies, and sees and understands things for which language is imperfect, and notation deficient. There is a secret alphabet in it to every letter of which we unconsciously assign a value, just as the mathematician may represent a thousand by the letter A. In my own mind the idea of light is associated with the colour yellow, not the yellow of the painters, or of flowers, but a quick flash. This quick bright flash of palest yellow in the thousandth of an instant reminds me, or rather conveys in itself, the whole idea of light–the accumulated idea of study and thought. I suppose it to be a memory of looking at the sun–a quick glance at the sun leaves something such an impression on the retina. With that physical impression all the calculations that I have read, and all the ideas that have occurred to me, are bound up. It is the sign – the letter – the expression of light. To the builders of the pyramids came the arrow from the sun, tinting their dusky forms, and glowing in the sand. To me it comes white and spectral in the silence, a finger pointed, a voice saying, ‘Even now you know nothing.’ Five thousand years since they were fully persuaded that they understood the universe, the course of the stars, and the secrets of life and death. What did they know of the beam of light that shone on the sonorous lap of their statue Memnon? The telescope, the microscope, and the prism have parted light and divided it, till it seems as if further discovery were impossible. This beam of light brings an account of the sun, clear as if written in actual letters, for example stating that certain minerals are as certainly there as they are here. But when in the silence I see the pale visitant at my bedside, and the mind rushes in one spring back to the builders of the pyramids who were equally sure with us, the thought will come to me that even now there may be messages in that beam undeciphered. With a turn of the heliograph, a mere turn of the wrist, a message is easily flashed twenty miles to the observer. You cannot tell what knowledge may not be pouring down in every ray; messages that are constant and perpetual, the same from age to age. These are physical messages. There is beyond this just a possibility that beings in distant earths possessed of greater knowledge than ourselves may be able to transmit their thoughts along, or by the ray, as we do along wires. In the days to come, when a deeper insight shall have been gained into the motions and properties of those unseen agents we call forces, such as magnetism, electricity, gravitation, perhaps a method will be devised to use them for communication. If so, communication with distant earths is quite within reasonable hypothesis. At this hour it is not more impossible than the transmission of a message to the antipodes in a few minutes would have been to those who lived a century since. The inhabitants of distant earths may have endeavoured to communicate with us in this way for ought we know time after time. Such a message is possibly contained sometimes in the pale beam which comes to my bedside. That beam always impresses me with a profound, an intense and distressful sense of ignorance, of being outside the intelligence of the universe, as if there were a vast civilization in view and yet not entered. Mere villagers and rustics creeping about a sullen earth, we know nothing of the grandeur and intellectual brilliance of that civilization. This beam fills me with unutterable dissatisfaction. Discontent, restless longing, anger at the denseness of the perception, the stupidity with which we go round and round in the old groove till accident shows us a fresh field. Consider, all that has been wrested from light has been gained by mere bits of glass. Mere bits of glass in curious shapes–poor feeble glass, quickly broken, made of flint, of the flint that mends the road. To this almost our highest conceptions are due. Could we employ the ocean as a lens we might tear truth from the sky. Could the greater intelligences that dwell on the planets and stars communicate with us, they might enable us to conquer the disease and misery which bear down the masses of the world. Perhaps they do not die. The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then? At present we cannot conceive a universe without a central solar orb for it to gather about and swing around. But that is only because hitherto our positive, physical knowledge has gone no farther. It can as yet only travel as far as this, as analogous beams of light. Light comes from the uttermost bounds of our star system – to that rim we can extend a positive thought. Beyond, and around it, whether it is solid, or fluid, or ether, or whether, as is most probable, there exist things absolutely different to any that have come under eyesight yet is not known. May there not be light we cannot see? Gravitation is an unseen light; so too magnetism; electricity or its effect is sometimes visible, sometimes not. Besides these there may be more delicate forces not instrumentally demonstrable. A force, or a wave, or a motion – an unseen light – may at this moment be flowing in upon us from that unknown space without and beyond the stellar system. It may contain messages from thence as this pale visitant does from the sun. It may outstrip light in speed as light outstrips an arrow. The more delicate, the more ethereal, then the fuller and more varied the knowledge it holds. There may be other things beside matter and motion, or force. All natural things known to us as yet may be referred to those two conditions: One, Force; Two, Matter. A third, a fourth, a fifth – no one can say how many conditions – may exist in the ultra-stellar space, beyond the most distant stars. Such a condition may even be about us now unsuspected. Something which is neither force nor matter is difficult to conceive; the mind cannot give it tangible shape even as a thought. Yet I think it more than doubtful if the entire universe, visible and invisible, is composed of these two. To me it seems almost demonstrable by rational induction that the entire universe must consist of more than two conditions. The grey dawn every morning warns me not to be certain that all is known. Analysis by the prism alone has quite doubled the knowledge that was previously available. In the light itself there may still exist as much more to be learnt, and then there may be other forces and other conditions to be first found out and next to tell their story. As at present known the whole system is so easy and simple, one body revolving round another, and so on; it is as easy to understand as the motion of a stone that has been thrown. This simplicity makes me misdoubt. Is it all? Space – immeasurable space – offers such possibilities that the mind is forced to the conclusion that it is not, that there must be more. I cannot thinkthat the universe can be so very very easy as this.”

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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.”

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IN DEEPEST SUSSEX

 SIMON COLEMAN

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Source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/0e/c0/a3/0ec0a3342d2bb28a9a42f196c3234178.jpg

 

A passage here from Jefferies’ late essay, ‘The Countryside: Sussex’, presenting a fine harvest scene from the High Weald area, probably around Ashdown Forest.  Jefferies was very sensitive to sound and here the hum of the threshing machine links the scenes of the wheat-field and the oast-house (for drying hops).

 

“To-day the sparrows are just as busy as ever of old, chatter, chirp around the old barn, while the threshing machine hums, and every now and then lowers its voice in a long-drawn descending groan of seemingly deep agony. Up it rises again as the sheaves are cast in—hum, hum, hum; the note rises and resounds and fills the yard up to the roof of the barn and the highest tops of the ricks as a flood fills a pool, and overflowing, rushes abroad over the fields, past the red hop-oast, past the copse of yellowing larches, onwards to the hills. An inarticulate music—a chant telling of the sunlit hours that have gone and the shadows that floated under the clouds over the beautiful wheat. No more shall the tall stems wave in the wind or listen to the bees seeking the clover-fields. The lark that sang above the green corn, the partridge that sheltered among the yellow stalks, the list of living things delighting in it—all have departed. The joyous life of the wheat is ended—not in vain, for now the grain becomes the life of man, and in that object yet more glorified. Outwards the chant extending, reaches the hollows of the valley, rolling over the shortened stubble, where the plough already begins the first verse of a new time. A pleasant sound to listen to, the hum of the threshing, the beating of the engine, the rustle of the straw, the shuffle shuffle of the machine, the voices of the men, the occupation and bustle in the autumn afternoon! I listened to it sitting in the hop-oast, whose tower, like a castle turret, overlooks and domineers the yard. In the loft the resounding hum whirled around, beating and rebounding from the walls, and forcing its way out again through the narrow window. The edge, as it were, of a sunbeam lit up the rude chamber crossed with unhewn beams and roofed above with unconcealed tiles, whose fastening pegs were visible. A great heap of golden scales lay in one corner, the hops fresh from the drying. Up to his waist in a pocket let through the floor a huge giant of a man trod the hops down in the sack, turning round and round, and now his wide shoulders and now his red cheeks succeeded. The music twirled him about as a leaf by the wind. Without the rich blue autumn sky; within the fragrant odour of hops, the hum of the threshing circling round like the buzz of an immense bee. As the hum of insects high in the atmosphere of midsummer suits and fits to the roses and the full green meads, so the hum of the threshing suits to the yellowing leaf and drowsy air of autumn. The iteration of hum and monotone soothes, and means so much more in its inarticulation than the adjusted chords and tune of written music. Laughing, the children romped round the ricks; they love the threshing and flock to it, they watch the fly-wheel rotating, they look in at the furnace door when the engine-driver stokes his fire, they gaze wonderingly at the gauge, and long to turn the brass taps; then with a shout they rush to chase the unhappy mice dislodged from the corn.”

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Source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/0e/26/ac/0e26ac5a979febcb4df0412fe83ea71e.jpg

Pilgrimage to the Sea

by Simon Coleman

August September 2013 Pembrokeshire holiday 119

Photo by Rebecca Welshman

In Chapter 6 of his 1883 autobiography, The Story of My Heart, Jefferies describes a time when he experienced a powerful yearning to be by the sea. In the following passages he describes one of the several ‘pilgrimages’ which are a highlight of the first part of the book. His first sight of the sea in childhood seems to have had a magnetic effect upon him, but all four elements of nature are prominent in his work. Here they appear together, intensifying his ‘inexpressible desire’, or ‘prayer’, for a larger life of body and soul. Jefferies is not merely celebrating the elements; he is finding renewal at the very sources of life. His journey to the Sussex coast is poorly planned and full of frustration…

“But I found the sea at last; I walked beside it in a trance away from the houses out into the wheat. The ripe corn stood up to the beach, the waves on one side of the shingle, and the yellow wheat on the other.

There, alone, I went down to the sea. I stood where the foam came to my feet, and looked out over the sunlit waters. The great earth bearing the richness of the harvest, and its hills golden with corn, was at my back; its strength and firmness under me. The great sun shone above, the wide sea was before me, the wind came sweet and strong from the waves. The life of the earth and the sea, the glow of the sun filled me; I touched the surge with my hand, I lifted my face to the sun, I opened my lips to the wind. I prayed aloud in the roar of the waves—my soul was strong as the sea and prayed with the sea’s might. Give me fulness of life like to the sea and the sun, to the earth and the air; give me fulness of physical life, mind equal and beyond their fulness; give me a greatness and perfection of soul higher than all things; give me my inexpressible desire which swells in me like a tide—give it to me with all the force of the sea.

Then I rested, sitting by the wheat; the bank of beach was between me and the sea, but the waves beat against it; the sea was there, the sea was present and at hand. By the dry wheat I rested, I did not think, I was inhaling the richness of the sea, all the strength and depth of meaning of the sea and earth came to me again. I rubbed out some of the wheat in my hands, I took up a piece of clod and crumbled it in my fingers—it was a joy to touch it—I held my hand so that I could see the sunlight gleam on the slightly moist surface of the skin. The earth and sun were to me like my flesh and blood, and the air of the sea life.

With all the greater existence I drew from them I prayed for a bodily life equal to it, for a soul-life beyond my thought, for my inexpressible desire of more than I could shape even into idea. There was something higher than idea, invisible to thought as air to the eye; give me bodily life equal in fulness to the strength of earth, and sun, and sea; give me the soul-life of my desire. Once more I went down to the sea, touched it, and said farewell. So deep was the inhalation of this life that day, that it seemed to remain in me for years. This was a real pilgrimage.”