IN PRAISE OF LIFE

Simon Coleman

Downsgrass.jpg

Photo by Simon Coleman

 

Throughout his life, Richard Jefferies found a simple, natural sense of joy from seeing the re-birth of the flowers in spring and the drift of the constellations along their familiar paths.  From the touch of sunbeams and inhaling the fresh breezes of the downs, he was uplifted in spirit and inspired to think and imagine.  From listening to birdsong in the long, light evenings he realised, as much earlier peoples did, that all life was charged with magical and sacred powers.  Whatever he found beautiful in nature or the landscape became a source of joy and something to be regarded as sacred.  The true poets have always understood that what is sacred should be praised and Jefferies, though a prose writer, belongs in this tradition.

‘There was a secluded spring to which I sometimes went to drink the pure water, lifting it in the hollow of my hand. Drinking the lucid water, clear as light itself in solution, I absorbed the beauty and purity of it. I drank the thought of the element; I desired soul-nature pure and limpid. When I saw the sparkling dew on the grass—a rainbow broken into drops—it called up the same thought-prayer. The stormy wind whose sudden twists laid the trees on the ground woke the same feeling; my heart shouted with it. The soft summer air which entered when I opened my window in the morning breathed the same sweet desire. At night, before sleeping, I always looked out at the shadowy trees, the hills looming indistinctly in the dark, a star seen between the drifting clouds; prayer of soul-life always. I chose the highest room, bare and gaunt, because as I sat at work I could look out and see more of the wide earth, more of the dome of the sky, and could think my desire through these. When the crescent of the new moon shone, all the old thoughts were renewed.’  (‘The Story of My Heart’)

‘..there was magic in everything’, he wrote in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’.  In the natural world, at every time of the year, there were wonderful things to find and praise.  Continuing from the above passage,

‘All the succeeding incidents of the year repeated my prayer as I noted them. The first green leaf on the hawthorn, the first spike of meadow grass, the first song of the nightingale, the green ear of wheat. I spoke it with the ear of wheat as the sun tinted it golden; with the whitening barley; again with the red gold spots of autumn on the beech, the buff oak leaves, and the gossamer dew-weighted. All the larks over the green corn sang it for me, all the dear swallows; the green leaves rustled it; the green brook flags waved it; the swallows took it with them to repeat it for me in distant lands. By the running brook I meditated it; a flash of sunlight here in the curve, a flicker yonder on the ripples, the birds bathing in the sandy shallow, the rush of falling water. As the brook ran winding through the meadow, so one thought ran winding through my days.’

 

The ‘prayer’ that Jefferies mentions is really his desire to live the life that these beautiful ‘incidents of the year’ suggest in his imagination.  He is not praying to anything; rather he seems to be assimilating the powers of nature to help him realise his own life power.

In one of his great essays, ‘The Pageant of Summer’, this prose-poetry achieved a new emotional depth, beautifully sustained as he moves among the splendours of the summer fields and hills.

‘To the dreamy summer haze love gave a deep enchantment, the colours were fairer, the blue more lovely in the lucid sky. Each leaf finer, and the gross earth enamelled beneath the feet. A sweet breath on the air, a soft warm hand in the touch of the sunshine, a glance in the gleam of the rippled waters, a whisper in the dance of the shadows. The ethereal haze lifted the heavy oaks and they were buoyant on the mead, the rugged bark was chastened and no longer rough, each slender flower beneath them again refined. There was a presence everywhere though unseen, on the open hills, and not shut out under the dark pines. Dear were the June roses then because for another gathered. Yet even dearer now with so many years as it were upon the petals; all the days that have been before, all the heart-throbs, all our hopes lie in this opened bud… Never could I have enough; never stay long enough – whether here or whether lying on the shorter sward under the sweeping and graceful birches, or on the thyme-scented hills. Hour after hour, and still not enough. Or walking the footpath was never long enough, or my strength sufficient to endure till the mind was weary. The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.’

In our time, words such as ‘joy’ and ‘beauty’ seem to have become devalued as a result of the severing of the human senses and heart from the eternal cycles of nature.  The experiences that Jefferies had are obviously more difficult to replicate in our restless, digital age where ‘screen time’ has pushed any sense of the eternal to the very margins of human life.  We may not be able to lie in the ‘thyme-scented hills’ with the rest and quiet that Jefferies found, but his words still communicate a profound love of life that inspires us to praise even the most common blade of grass.

WILD THYME OF THE HILLS

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Source: http://www.sunlandherbs.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/wildmountainthyme1.jpg

by Simon Coleman

The wonder of the flowers of the fields, hedges and hills was never absent from Jefferies’ world of thought and feeling.  He writes in ‘Locality and Nature’: “To anyone who takes a delight in wild flowers some spot or other of the earth is always becoming consecrated.”  As a boy he would gather flowers from the meadows when the grass was being cut.

 

“I used to stand by the mower and follow the scythe sweeping down thousands of the broad-flowered daisies, the knotted knapweeds, the blue scabious, the yellow rattles, sweeping so close and true that nothing escaped; and, yet although I had seen so many hundreds of each, although I had lifted armfuls day after day, still they were fresh. They never lost their newness, and even now each time I gather a wild flower it feels a new thing.”

 

On the chalk hills of Wiltshire and Sussex, Jefferies found an abundance of thyme, the purplish-pink flower, loved by the bees, to which he refers so often.  On Wolstanbury Hill in Sussex,

“…you may lie on the grassy rampart, high up in the most delicate air – Grecian air, pellucid – alone, among the butterflies and humming bees at the thyme…”

 

He would often rest at places where the thyme grew thickly, inhaling its ‘delicious odour’.   On Beachy Head he found “turf thus washed by wind and rain, sun-dried and dew-scented, is a couch prepared with thyme to rest on.” This connection between thyme and repose is a recurring theme in his writing.  In his rural novel, Green Fern Farm, for example, Geoffrey’s “weary head drooped on the pillow of thyme; with a deep-drawn sigh he slept.”

The hills themselves he could describe as ‘thyme-scented’. They were a wilder, more open and less populated district than the farmlands around Coate where he grew up.  Breezes were forever washing over them, as pure as the scent of the thyme.  The hills were in some sense an ‘other’, more primitive world, bare of trees, littered with prehistoric entrenchments and barrows which awoke the imagination to the passage of great cycles of time.  They were ever fresh and charged with life-giving powers.  The colours of flowers and grasses stood out with superb clarity on the chalky slopes.  Jefferies found another type of beauty on the hills, and the thyme was interwoven into his feelings and experiences there.  It might even have expressed for him something of the ‘unseen presence’ that dwelt among these gently curving uplands.

His unquenchable desire for such beauty could take the form of a silent ‘prayer’.  We are not talking about a god here: he denied the existence of deity, believing it to be a tiny idea.  This prayer was his life-desire, his passion for the fullest existence, here on earth.  He describes it in The Story of My Heart, in impassioned prose-poetry:

“…I prayed by the sweet thyme, whose little flowers I touched with my hand; by the slender grass; by the crumble of dry chalky earth I took up and let fall through my fingers. Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower, breathing the earth-encircling air, thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, prone on the sward in token of deep reverence, thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity.”

 

The focus of this experience was Liddington Hill at the northern edge of the Wiltshire downs.   He refers to his ‘hill-prayer’ in his notebooks and it is clear that the chalk downs, the land of the wild thyme, was where this rapture came upon him with the greatest intensity.  In Jefferies’ children’s novel, Wood Magic, “Bevis gathered the harebell, and ran with the flower in his hand down the hill, and as he ran the wild thyme kissed his feet and said: ‘Come again, Bevis, come again’ “. The thyme, while remaining a simple flower, became a symbol which helped him to shape his desire, his hill-prayer, into something almost tangible.  Only through touch could he gather its deepest beauty and significance.

Some years after his wanderings on the downs around Liddington, Jefferies, now living in suburban Surrey, visited the famous botanical gardens at Kew.  At length he came upon some thyme:

“This bunch of wild thyme once again calls up a vision of the Downs; it is not so thick and strong, and it lacks that cushion of herbage which so often marks the site of its growth on the noble slopes of the hills, and along the sward-grown fosse of ancient earthworks, but it is wild thyme, and that is enough.”