The Story of a Heart
by H. S. Salt
RICHARD JEFFERIES is chiefly known to literary fame by such books as “The Gamekeeper at Home,” and “The Amateur Poacher,” in which the most exquisite descriptions of country scenery and open-air life are combined with a singularly poetical treatment of natural history and scientific phenomena. Less popular than these writings, yet in reality far more characteristic and remarkable, is the small volume entitled “The Story of my Heart, my Autobiography,” a title which is fully justified by the contents of the book, although there is but little narrative of facts and dates and places. Real autobiographies—autobiographies in which the writer unveils, not the outward circumstances of his fortunes and life, but the inner intellectual and spiritual history of himself, are rare indeed, but this is one of them. It is just for this reason, because it is the story of a heart, and not of a lay-figure, that it possesses a peculiar and inexpressible charm for some readers, especially, of course, for those who are in sympathy with the main current of Jefferies’ thoughts and aspirations.
The book may be regarded under two aspects—its treatment of metaphysical questions and of social. The leading thought by which it is inspired throughout is the intense and passionate yearning for what the author calls “soul-life.” Not content with those three ideas which he says the primeval cavemen wrested from the unknown darkness around them—the existence of the soul, immortality, and the deity—he desires to “wrest a fourth, and even still more than a fourth, from the darkness of thought.” He believes that we are even now on the verge of great spiritual discoveries, that “a great life, an entire civilization, lies just outside the pale of common thought,” and that these soul-secrets may be discovered by a resolute and sustained endeavour of the human mind. This “fourth idea,” which cannot be precisely formulated in words, since there are no words that can adequately express it, is the conception of a possible soul-life which is above and beyond the idea of existence and immortality, beyond even deity itself; a spiritual entity which is even now realised in part by the absorption of the soul, in rapturous moments of reverie and devotion, into the beauty and infinity of the visible universe. In this mysticism and vision-faculty, of which there are many traces in the book, we are often reminded of De Quincey; but in Jefferies’ case there is a more distinct purpose and a deliberate perseverance in the search after the unknown. “I looked at the hills,” he says, in his description of a spot to which he used daily to repair with the object of thus communing with the spiritual world, “at time dewy grass, and then up through the elm branches to the sky. In a moment all that was behind me; the house, the people, the sounds, seemed to disappear, and to leave me alone. Involuntarily I drew a long breath, then I breathed slowly. My thought, or inner consciousness, went up through the illumined sky, and I was lost in a moment of exaltation.”
It is open to question how far there is anything exceptional or novel in such experiences as these, which may be nothing more than that ecstasy of spiritual rapture of which all poetical minds have been at times cognisant, or, on the other hand, may be, as Jefferies apparently considered them to be, a kind of new and peculiar revelation—a glimpse vouchsafed to him, more than to other men, of the new ideas, and even new physical forces, which are destined sooner or later to become the subjects of thought. At any rate it is on these spiritual impulses, this intuitive conception, that Jefferies’ strange notion of a “fourth idea” is based; while at the same time he absolutely discards the most cherished axioms of modern scientific enquiry, refusing to admit the “it must follow” which springs from the accepted law of cause and effect, and declining in his metaphysical creed to be pinned to any inevitable choice between creation, evolution, or the eternity of matter. Men of science will smile at such presumption; but it is nevertheless remarkable that this distrust in the approved scientific methods should be felt and expressed by one whose own powers of observation were extraordinarily keen. Whatever may be the ultimate verdict of time on Jefferies’ metaphysical speculations, there is no doubt they are well worth studying; right or wrong, correct or incorrect, they have certainly the merit of being singularly interesting, stimulating, and suggestive.
When we turn to the consideration of social subjects we find that Jefferies is at once despondent and sanguine—despondent when he remembers the past, sanguine when he looks forward to 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, thought burning like the sun, that there is yet something to be found, something real, something to give each separate 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.” But the first step towards the future success must be the full acknowledgment of the past failure, the recognition that for want of proper organisation little has as yet been effected by centuries of labour and discovery, and further that the established theological dogmas are utterly impotent to give strength or consolation to the mind. “Human suffering is so great, so endless, so awful, that I can hardly write of it. It is the duty of all rational beings to acknowledge the truth. There is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs. This is a foundation of hope, because, if the present condition of things were ordered by a superior power, there would he no possibility of improving it for the better in the spite of that power. Acknowledging that no such direction exists, all things become at once plastic to our will.” So, too, if we realise that mere ingenuity of workmanship is in itself worthless, that “control of iron and steel has not altered or improved the bodily man,” and that “no benefit to the heart or to the body accrues from the most accurate mechanism,” we may learn an invaluable lesson for our future guidance, and on the disappointments of to-day lay the foundation of the true prosperity of a coming age. Like Thoreau, Jefferies maintains that a mere fraction of the heavy toil which men now undergo might, under a rational system of forethought and organisation, be sufficient to fill the whole world with abundance of comfort and happiness. “This, our earth,” he says, “produces not only a sufficiency, but a super-abundance, and pours a cornucopia of good things down upon us. Further, it produces sufficient for stores and granaries to be filled to the roof-tree for years a-head. I verily believe that the earth in one year produces enough food to last for thirty. Why, then, have we not enough? Why do people die of starvation, or lead a miserable existence on the verge of it? Why have millions upon millions to toil from morning to evening just to gain a mere crust of bread? Because of the absolute lack of organisation by which such labour shall produce its effect, the absolute lack of distribution, the absolute lack even of the very idea that such things are possible. Nay, even to mention such things, to say that they are possible, is criminal with many. Madness could hardly go farther.”
The contemplation of past and present misery may thus, according to Richard Jefferies’ opinion, serve to stimulate mankind to wiser exertions and more unselfish aims; while the very fact that there is no proof of an overruling intelligence, and no sure consolation for the ravages of death, should he interpreted, not as a reason for despair, but as an urgent injunction on each individual to make the best possible use of his own lifetime, and as a sign that man’s destiny is in his own hands whenever he is strong enough and wise enough to shape it to a nobler end. A strong belief in the perfectibility of man (perfectibility in the sense of the prospect of unlimited improvement, as Godwin taught in his political writings a hundred years ago) is the main feature of Jefferies’ social creed; he looks forward with absolute confidence to a time when the human body shall have reached a state of perfect physical vigour, and the human mind shall have burst the bondage of the narrow circle of ideas by which it is now encompassed; when mankind, no longer doomed through the improvidence of preceding generations to a lifetime of wasted labour and heart-corroding anxiety, shall dwell in peace and leisure and contentment. It is interesting to notice that Jefferies, like Godwin, is inclined to the fantastic belief that an age may come when even death will be found to be not inevitable to the ideal human race, since “in the course of ages united effort, long-continued, may eliminate those causes of decay which have grown up in ages past, and, after that has been done, advance farther and improve the natural state.”
This is a noble creed, whatever objection may be taken to it by the theologian on the one side, or the man of science on the other; in fact, all that Jefferies says about the duties and destinies of the human race gives proof of the loving warmth and loyalty of the heart whose story is here unfolded to us. One feeling only we miss with some regret in this autobiographical record, and that is the sense of brotherhood between man and nature, the bond of sympathy between the human animal and the lower animals to whom he is in some measure akin. In spite of Jefferies’ extraordinarily keen appreciation of the loveliness of nature, this sense of brotherhood which has been a characteristic feature of many lofty spirits, from St. Francis of Assisi to Wordsworth, and has been especially developed in the modern humanitarian movement, seems to be almost entirely unknown to him. “There is nothing human in nature,” he says, giving as his reason the fact that man, in any extremity of need, must look in vain for assistance to earth or sky or sea; and apparently forgetting that the absence of assistance does not necessarily indicate a similar absence of sympathy. He dwells with strange insistance on the repellent aspect of the more monstrous forms of annual life, such as certain sea-fish, the toad, and the snake; and asserts that even the shapes of the horse, dog, and other domestic animals, though familiar to the eye through long intimacy, are in themselves “anti-human,” or at least “ultra-human.” Entirely rejecting the theory of evolution, he seems to regard man, or at any rate the mind of man, as wholly independent and unconnected with the general order of the universe. “Centuries of thought,” he says, “have failed to reconcile and fit the mind to the universe, which is designless and purposeless, and without idea. I will not endeavour to fit my thought to it any longer; I find and believe myself to be distinct—separate; and I will labour in earnest to obtain the highest culture for myself.” One looks in vain to this philosophy of purely human aspiration for such a sentiment as that which is expressed in Wordsworth’s lines;
“To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;”
“Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels:”
For Jefferies, tender and unselfish though his teaching is, on all points in which the welfare of humanity is concerned, appears not to have been inspired by that wider sympathy which can embrace all forms of life.
Such is the substance of the metaphysical and social ideas of which Richard Jefferies makes confession in his “Story of my Heart.” Stated thus in bald and brief outline, and divested of the transcendant charm of the language in which he himself expressed them, his thoughts and aspirations will doubtless seem to a critical reader to be fanciful rather than philosophical, indicative of eccentricity rather than of genius. But when read in Jefferies’ own words, and studied rather as a prose-poem (for such it is) than as a philosophical treatise, the book can scarcely fail to be appreciated at its true value. As a master of prose style Jefferies has been equalled by few modern writers and surpassed by fewer still; so perfectly melodious are his sentences, so full of tender gravity, so simple yet so subtle in their structure and modulation. In reading some passages of the “Story of my Heart” one could fancy that the words, as has been said of Shelley’s words, “were really transparent, or that they throbbed with living lustres;” for beneath the apparent calm there lurks a white heat of intense and passionate feeling. “Who would have imagined,” says Jefferies, in a description of one of his raptures of “soul-prayer” on a hill-top to which he daily resorted, “who could have imagined the whirlwind of passion that was going on within me as I reclined there?” In the same way a careless or unsympathetic reader might miss the real intensity of spiritual emotion by which the story, so simply told, is throughout inspired; though none, I think, could fail to admire the beauty of the language, as it ripples on from thought to thought in harmonious sequence, with here and there the repetition of a favourite word or image (for Jefferies was a great master of the refrain) as a keynote or undertone.
Here, in conclusion, is a specimen of Jefferies’ prose-poetry, which may serve to illustrate what I have said of his manner of thought and expression. It is an account of an ancient grass-covered tumulus on the hills where he used frequently to wander and meditate.
“Sweetly the summer air came up to the tumulus, the grass sighed softly, the butterflies went by, sometimes alighting on the green dome. Two thousand years! Summer after summer the blue butterfies had visited the mound, the thyme had flowered, the wind sighed in the grass . . . . Two thousand times the woods grew green, and ringdoves built their nests; day and night for two thousand years—light and shadow sweeping over the mound—two thousand years of labour by day and slumber by night. Mystery gleaming in the stars, pouring down in the sunshine, speaking in the night, the wonder of the sun and of far space, for twenty centuries round about this low and green-grown dome. Yet all that mystery and wonder is as nothing to the thought that lies therein, to the spirit that I feel so close.”
Published: To-day, June 1888