The Gospel According to Richard Jefferies
by H. S. Salt
Richard Jefferies was not only the prose-poet of natural history, the devoted observer and recorder of all that is most significant and picturesque in country life, and historian of “amateur poachers” and “gamekeepers at home.” He was all this; but he was also something more than this; and there are perhaps a few gospels of modern times more worthy of careful study than that contained in his little volume entitled “The Story of my Heart: my Autobiography,” a book which at first could find but few purchasers, but which is now out of print, and rapidly becoming an object of interest to readers and collectors.
Jefferies’s creed may be briefly summed up in his own words: “I believe in the human being, mind and flesh, form and soul.” In spite of his ever-present sense of the infinite beauty and sacredness of external Nature, and the passionate intensity of this communion with earth and sun and sea, the human being is the final and crowning object of his devotion. His first and chief prayer is that he may “do or find something to exalt the soul, something to enable it to live its own life.” This “soul-life” is the term by which Jefferies denotes—or attempts to denote, for he repeatedly complains of the inefficiency of all language – that large vision, that wider spiritual scope, to which he believes mankind is capable of attaining. Not content with the three great primeval ideas—the existence of the soul, immortality, and the Deity—he yearns for something more, which shall be beyond and above these; and this “fourth idea,” inexpressible in actual words, constitutes the soul-life to which his mind aspires. He feels, by a mystic and visionary intuition, that just outside the pale of common thought there is “a great life, an entire civilization;” and it is his belief that this new realm might be reached and penetrated by the human mind, if men would better cultivate the wonderful powers of the soul. “The soul,” he says, “is the mind of the mind. It can build and construct, and look beyond and penetrate space, and create. It is the keenest and sharpest tool possessed by man.” To attain in some measure to this power of spiritual insight, this soul-life, is therefore, according to Jefferies’s gospel, the first duty of intellectual mankind.
His second prayer is the perfection of physical beauty. The human form is to him the sum and epitome of all that is grand and impressive in nature. “To be shapely of form is so infinitely beyond wealth, power, fame, all that ambition can give, that these are dust before it.” To cultivate physical strength and symmetry is as real and indispensable a duty as to aspire to soul-life. “I believe,” say Jefferies—“I do more than think—I believe, it to be a sacred duty, incumbent upon everyone, man and woman, to add to and encourage their physical life, by exercise and in every manner. Each one of us should do some little part for the physical good of the race—health, strength, vigour. There is no harm therein to the soul: on the contrary, those who stunt their physical life are most certainly stunting their souls.” Seldom have the glories of physical existence – the “wild joys of living,” as Mr. Browning calls them – been celebrated with such rapturous devotion as in Jefferies’s prose-poem. Day and night are declared by him to be too short for their full enjoyment – the day should be sixty hours long, the night should offer forty hours of sleep; he would have the bow of Ninus, and the earth full of wild bulls and lions, to hunt them down; he would be loved by every beautiful woman on earth, “from the swart Nubian to the white and divine Greek.” “O beautiful human life!” he exclaims. “Tears come in my eyes as I think of it. So beautiful, so inexpressibly beautiful!”
As regards the past and future of the human race, Jefferies’s doctrines are a strange mixture of despondency and hopefulness; disbelieving in those assurances to which most men cling, he draws from this very disbelief a reason for strength and confidence. He is under no delusions, he says, as to the insecurity of religious faith; he believes in no over-ruling intelligence; he finds no trace of the existence of a Diety either in nature or in human affairs. Nay, more, he considers that it is a falsehood and a crime against humanity to assert that all things happen for some beneficent end, since “the whole and the worst the worst pessimist can say is far beneath the least particle of the truth, so immense is the misery of man.” The question of the soul’s immortality is one which, in our present limited range of ideas, can be answered neither in the affirmative nor negative—the future, if here be a future, is beyond our ken. This, however, is no cause for despair, but rather for hope, since the moment we recognize that there is no directing intelligence, but that man is left to himself, and free to become master of his own destinies, we at once have a rational motive for energy and self-improvement. The certainty of death and the uncertainty of the future beyond it are urgent injunctions on mankind to dispel their superstitious illusions and to realize the supreme importance of the present life, since by a resolute effort now we may pave the way for the happiness of future generations. What this happiness shall be we can only surmise, but Jefferies hints at the possibility of a perfection which transcends all present belief. “All diseases,” he says, “without exception are preventable. All accounts are crimes.” So potent is human thought, so infinite its scope, that things now deemed supernatural may yet prove to be discoverable, and man may enter on an exalted and spiritualized existence from which even death itself may be eliminated. But the first and most absolutely necessary step is the rejection of superstitious belief, for it is by this that human effort has hitherto been paralysed.
Equally emphatic is Jefferies’s rejection of the accumulated teaching of tradition and experience. We must begin wholly afresh, and admit that the past has utterly failed, that the present is failing now; for thus alone, from disbelief, can the new and saving belief be originated. “Nothing,” he says, “has as yet been of any value, however good its intent. There is no virtue, or reputed virtue, which has not been rigidly pursued, and things have remained as before. Everything is in vain. The circle of ideas we possess is too limited to aid us.” So, too, with modern doctrines and discoveries—they may add to the convenience, but not to the real happiness of the race. The improvement of mechanism, the piling up of fortunes, the building of cities, even the teachings of science, are of no avail towards hastening the perfection of the human soul or the human body; wonderful as they are, they are for the most part useless. Our whole manner of thought must be altered before true progress can become possible; men must work, “not for bread, but for their souls.” We must discard the present philosophy of work, as a good in itself, in the light of the fact that centuries of labour have resulted merely in the demoralization of the few and the degradation of the many. “Why,” asks Jefferies, “have millions upon millions to toil from morning to evening just to gain a mere crust of bread? Because of the absolute lack of organization by which such labour should produce its effect, the absolute lack of distribution, the absolute lack even of the very idea that such things are possible.” The earth produces food in abundance; there are mighty powers of nature which may be set to work for the lightening of human labour; the foresight and rationally directed toil of a few generations might obliterate the follies of the past and bequeath to our descendants an era of leisure, plenty, and tranquillity. This happiness might have been our lot now but for the errors of our ancestors; it will be our fault if the future centuries are darkened by a continuance of the same unnecessary evils.
It will be observed that Jefferies’s doctrine of human perfectibility (in the sense of unlimited improvement) in several points resembles that which Godwin taught a hundred years ago. A peculiarity of Jefferies’s creed is that he wholly rejects the theory of evolution, on which a belief in the gradual improvement of man may reasonably be founded, and regards the human mind as independent and separate from nature, which is ultra-human and designless, whereas the mind is controlled “by no tidal law, no rotation, no gravitation.” This, however, is not a vital point in Jefferies’s philosophy, the essence of which is, as I have shown, a conviction of the perfectibility of the human race by the limitless power of the enfranchised human mind. The intensely pessimistic view which he takes of the past and present condition of man is thus merged into a strong optimism as regards the future. “Full well aware,” he says, “that all has failed, yet, side by side with the sadness of that knowledge, there lives on in me an unquenchable belief that there is yet something to be found, something real, something to give each personality sunshine and flowers in its own existence now. Something to shape this million-handed labour to an end and outcome, leaving accumulated sunshine and flowers to those who shall succeed. It must be dragged forth by might of thought from the immense forces of the universe.”
Published: Pall Mall Gazette, November 15, 1888