Richard Jefferies

Richard Jefferies

It has been remarked by De Quincey, with profound psychological insight, that the thought of death is especially affecting in the summer, and that “any particular death haunts the mind more obstinately and besiegingly in that season,” the “tropical redundancy of life” suggesting by very contrast the “frozen sterilities of the grave.” True in general, this saying finds a peculiar and pathetic illustration in the case of Richard Jefferies, whose untimely death can scarcely fail to be associated and contrasted, in the minds of those who love his personality and writings, with that ‘Pageant of Summer’ which he so wonderfully and feelingly depicted. For Jefferies, above all other writers, was the high-priest of Summer; his warm, sensuous, southern nature breathed intense reverence for the “alchemic, intangible, mysterious power, which cannot be supplied in any other form but the sun’s rays.” Who else could have described, as he has described, the glare, the glamour, the multitudinous hum, the immense prodigality of a high summer noon? The “great sun burning in the heaven” is the burden and inspiration not only of the impassioned ‘Story of my Heart,’ but of all the most imaginative outpourings of his fervent spirit, which was destined too soon, alas! to be quenched in that wintry darkness which it so surely and instinctively foreboded.

This lavish ardour of temperament, which regarded every form of asceticism as “the vilest blasphemy,” and, in its insatiable yearning for a full, rich life, chafed against the niggardliness of time and destiny, must be kept well in view by all readers who would understand the significance of Jefferies’ career. It is this that especially differentiates him from those other “poet-naturalists” to whom he is in some measure akin—from the stern self-contented simplicity of his predecessor, Thoreau, and from the masculine energy and robustness of his contemporary, Burroughs; we perceive in Jefferies’ personality, and in those essays by which his personality is most clearly expressed, a tender, pathetic, passionate, almost feminine craving for ideal beauty, for physical perfection, for an ampler “soul-life.” It is furthermore a noticeable fact that all his memorable work was produced within a compass of ten years, of which no less than six were years of increasing illness and debility. The pathos of this contrast between the ideal and the actual, between triumphant aspiration and crushing disappointment, has thus left a strong mark on his writings; he is at once confident and despondent—despondent in the undeniable failure of the present and the past, confident in the belief that the human race will hereafter realise the utmost dreams of his ambition.

In this period of Jefferies’ mature work, which dates from the commencement of his residence at Surbiton, in 1877, to his death ten years later two distinct phases are readily observable. He appears at first as the nature-student pure and simple, who by a long and loving apprenticeship has become absolutely familiar with all the phenomena and details of country life, and can reproduce them in language of exquisite clearness and flexibility. Nor is it any romantic and fanciful Arcadia that is depicted in his pages; for, though an idealist at heart he is also in these descriptive writings, one of the sternest and most uncompromising of realists, and gives us the dark no less than the bright features of his story with unremitting fidelity.

“If I were a painter,” he says, in reference to the application of machinery to agriculture, “I should like to paint all this. For I think that the immense realism of the iron wheels makes the violet yet more lovely; the more they try to drive out Nature with a fork, the more she returns, and the soul clings the stronger to the wild flowers. He who has got the sense of beauty in his eye can find it in things as they really are and needs no stagey time of artificial pastorals to furnish him with a sham nature. Idealise to the full, but idealise the real, else the picture is a sham.”

These words, though written in one of Jefferies’ later essays, are eminently applicable to the best efforts of his earlier style, which is as remarkable for its close fidelity to Nature as for its idyllic beauty of expression.

The volumes which furnish the most notable instances of this side of Jefferies’ genius are perhaps the four by which he is at present  very generally known—the ‘Gamekeeper at Home’, the ‘Amateur  Poacher,’ ‘Wild Life in a Southern County,’ and ‘Round about a Great Estate,’ in all of which he manifests the same extraordinary knowledge of the fauna and flora of his native district, a knowledge based on an exceptionally keen habit of observation, and strengthened by a powerful memory and a diligent course of journal-keeping. But it is not only the wild denizens of field and forest that are the subjects of Jefferies’ study; he treats also in the fullest and most careful manner of almost every feature of agricultural life. In ‘Hodge and his Masters’ we have a series of typical character-sketches of rustic society—the farmer, the gentleman farmer, the bailiff, the squire, the parson, the curate, the banker, the lawyer, and all the rest of the worshipful company who look to Hodge for service and support; while ‘Green Ferne Farm,’ albeit worthless as a novel, contains some very valuable pictures of hay-making, nutting, gleaning, church-going, merry-making, and various rustic scenes. It seems a sad mistake on the part of certain critics to blame Jefferies for this perfectly reasonable and indeed necessary extension of his scope, on the ground that he “would have done well to leave Hodge and Hodge’s masters alone and keep to his beasts, and birds, and fishes.”1 Jefferies’ wiser instinct prompted him to interpret the naturalist’s duty in a larger sense, and to paint the country as a whole in which Hodge and his masters and the beasts and the fishes had alike to play their part. In this same connection he remarks of Gilbert White, to a reprint of whose famous work he himself contributed a preface, that “it must ever be regretted that he did not leave a natural history of the people of his day. We should then have had a picture of England just before the beginning of our present era, and a wonderful difference it would have shown.” Future naturalists will not be able to lay any such omission to Jefferies’ charge, for in these books of his, as his biographer has truly observed, “the whole of the country life of the nineteenth century will be found displayed down to every detail.”

That a permanent historical value will attach to writings of this kind can hardly be doubted; they will be studied, centuries hence, along with White’s Selborne and a few similar works, as a chronicle of natural history—a museum to which artists and scientists will repair for instruction and entertainment. I cannot however at all agree with those of Jefferies’ admirers who consider these volumes (to wit, the ‘Gamekeeper t Home,’ and the rest of the same class) to be his literary masterpieces, and who speak of them as exhibiting, in contrast with his later books, what they call his “simpler and better style:” I believe, with Mr. Walter Besant that Jefferies’ word-pictures of the country life are “far from being the most considerable part of his work.” Certain advantages there are, beyond question, in the simple treatment of a clear, well-defined subject, the importance of which, so far as it goes, is universally recognised, and is not complicated by any admixture of religious mysticism or social controversy, such writing is at once more popular and less perilous than, that which Jefferies afterwards went on to attempt. But a man’s best and highest work is not necessarily that which is most successfully accomplished or most widely appreciated; nor is there anything at all conclusive in the fact that Jefferies’ earlier volumes have a hundred readers where his later have ten—in the present state of “humane letters” such a verdict was inevitable, but it is none the less a verdict which posterity will some day rescind.

Jefferies’ later style may perhaps be said to begin with ‘Wood Magic,’ published in 1881, though no doubt isolated examples may be noticed here and there in much earlier essays. The “poet-naturalist” here presents himself in a more difficult and ambitious character; for whereas hitherto the poet in Jefferies had been accessory and subordinate to the naturalist, the position is now reversed, and we find the poetical and imaginative element wielding complete supremacy over the merely descriptive and scientific.

“He took the step,” says his biographer, “the vast step, across the chasm which separates the poetic from the vulgar mind, and began to clothe the real with the colours and glamour of the unreal; to write down the response of the soul to the phenomena of Nature; to interpret the voice of Nature speaking to the soul.”

It should furthermore be noticed that, simultaneously with this advance in Jefferies’ Nature-worship, a deeper feeling on religious and social subjects is manifested in his writings, and that he now at last finds utterance for his own distinctive views on many questions of great ethical importance which had hitherto, perhaps of necessity, gone almost unmentioned by him. Some critics no doubt deplore this new departure, and if they could have had their way, would have sent Jefferies back, like Keats to his gallipots, to the less hazardous, and less controversial topic of birds and fishes; I venture, on the contrary, to maintain that his very best and most memorable work is to be found in these imaginative and mystic essays of his later period, in the ‘Pageant of Summer,’ in ‘Hour of Spring,’ and above all in the wonderful and inimitable ‘Story of my Heart.’

I have already said that the key to Jefferies’ character is to be sought in his rich sensuous temperament, full of passionate yearning for physical no less than spiritual beauty. His creed may be summed up in his own words: “I believe in the human being, mind and flesh form and soul;” he held it to be the sacred duty of every man and woman to cultivate by all the means in their power all possibilities of physical health, inasmuch as a deficiency in bodily vigour must inevitably warp and stunt the corresponding vigour of the soul. An idealist of this kind could hardly fail to resent and rebel against the sordid, heartless conditions of modern society, in which half the grace and joy of living are strangled in the wolfish struggle of competitive existence; and accordingly we find Jefferies aiming many a shaft of scathing anger at those class notions and institutions in which Respectability delights. He denounces the application of the word “pauper” to any human being as “the greatest, the vilest, the most unpardonable crime that could be committed;” charity organisation is similarly referred to as a “spurious, lying, false, and abominable mockery;” while it is his deliberate opinion that “the more philanthropy is talked about and especially scientific philanthropy, the more individual suffering there is.” He directly asserts that the earth produces a superabundance of good things for human sustenance, and that every human being has an inalienable birthright in these good things.

“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 till evening just to gain a mere crust of bread? Because of the absolute lack of organisation 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.”

We are told by Mr. Besant that Jefferies “could never have called himself a Socialist, but he sympathised with that part of Socialism which claims for every man the full profit of the labour of his hands.” The distinction, however, seems scarcely to amount to a difference; and there are many indications in Jefferies’ later essays of his socialistic, or rather communistic, spirit—a spirit which is the more remarkable, because it developed itself quite spontaneously from his own personality, in direct opposition to all the associations and surroundings of his youth and manhood. The result was a strange mixture of conflicting moods and opinions, for in all the immediate matters of “practical politics” Jefferies remained a moderate, or even in some degree conservative, thinker, while as regards his ideals of the changes impending in the future, he was heart and soul with the most advanced pioneers of social reform.

An innate distrust of all the precepts of custom and tradition was one of Jefferies’ most noticeable characteristics; Thoreau himself was scarcely more contemptuous of conventional usages and restraints. “The longer people do one thing,” he says, “the worse they do it, till in the end they cannot do it at all.” Not to learn, but to unlearn, is the true vocation of the scholar “to unlearn the first ideas of history, of science, of social institutions, to unlearn one’s own life and purpose; to unlearn the old mode of thought and way of arriving at things; to take off peel after peel, and so get by degrees slowly towards the truth.” He was of opinion that our whole mode of thought must be revolutionised before the true progress is possible “not while money, furniture, affected show, and the pageantry of wealth are the ambitions of the multitude can the multitude become ideal in form.” It is precisely at this point that Jefferies’ intense pessimism as regards the failure of the past merges into a strong optimistic faith in man’s future capabilities, since the recognition of bygone error is an earnest of success to come.

“Full well aware 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 separate personality sunshine and flowers in its existence now.”

This insistence on an ideal humanity, as the visible goal by which all progress must be measured, made Jefferies dissent not only from the orthodox sociology but also from many of the accepted methods and conclusions of contemporary science. Science is useful, he maintains, only when “it is in conjunction with the human ideal,” and be boldly refuses to acknowledge the infallibility of such scientific axioms as the law of cause an effect and the “it must follow” of the logician; “however carefully the argument be built up,” he says, “even though apparently flawless, there is no such thing at present as ‘it must follow.’” He was, in short, an idealist and mystic far more than a man of science, and the leading notion in his philosophy of Nature is the concept of that almost inexpressible state of existence, beyond immortality, higher than deity, which he designates “soul-life.” We call this mysticism; but it must not be forgotten that it is the mysticism of no mere visionary of the study or the cloister, but of one of the keenest and most painstaking observers that ever set eyes on Nature; a mysticism which, as Jefferies himself asserts, is based not on the imaginary, but the real. “From standing face to face so long with the real earth, the real sun, and the real sea, I am firmly convinced that there is an immense range of thought quite unknown to us yet.” The passages in the ‘Story of my Heart,’ where he seems to be dimly groping his way on the very confines of this spiritual dreamland, and striving to express in words ideas which he knows can only be apprehended by the emotions, are among the most moving and impressive in recent literature; none but Jefferies could have written them, so rich are they in their confident anticipation of future intellectual discoveries, so tenderly pathetic in the sadness of their personal retrospect.

But if the chief merits of Jefferies as a thinker are comprised in the essentially human aspect of his philosophy, it is in connection with this same topic that we have to note his chief shortcomings. Admirable as is the manner in which he exalts the human ideal as the crown of all culture, he not only goes too far, but weakens the force of his contention, when he isolates human kind from the rest of Nature as something wholly unrelated and apart. “There is nothing human,” he says, “in any living animal. All Nature, the universe as far as we can see, is anti-, or ultra-human, outside, it has no connection with man.” He thus places himself in direct antagonism to the general tendency of contemporary ethics no less than of contemporary science, being compelled to assert dogmatically on the one hand, that “nothing is evolved; there is no evolution any more than there Is design in Nature,” and on the other to stand aloof from that most beneficent and, in the truest sense, humanising spirit which more and more is leading us to regard mankind as sharers in a universal brotherhood of all living things. And there is this obvious difficulty; why, if Nature is wholly ultra-human and indifferent, is communion with Nature so strongly advocated by Jefferies as the surest training for the soul? Why, to quote his own words, do “all things seem possible in the open air”? To this question he gives no answer; nor is it easy to see what answer can be given from his standpoint. “I was aware,” he says, “that in reality the feeling and the thought were in me, and not in the earth or sun; yet I was more conscious of it when in company with these.” But why, if there was no sympathy?

Many readers of Jefferies must, I imagine, have noticed with regret the contrast his character presents to that of Thoreau on the subject of man’s relations with the lower animals. We wholly miss in Jefferies the sense of natural brotherhood, and consequent magnetic sympathy with the inhabitants of field and forest, which Thoreau possessed in as large a measure as St. Francis of Assisi, and which lend so singular a charm to the personality of the Walden hermit. The hunting instinct was strong in Jefferies; in Thoreau it was well nigh extinct. Take, for example, their respective mention of the hare. “The hare,” says Thoreau, “in its extremity cries like a child; I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual philanthropic distinctions.” It is Jefferies’ opinion that “hares are almost formed on purpose to be good sport.” And so in numerous other instances; while the one naturalist sees a sharp distinction between the human and the brute creation, the other expresses himself as “pathetically affected” by the human traits of animals, and surmises that among them, too, a civilisation may even now be progressing.

This defect on Jefferies’ part is indicative of something more than a want of sympathy in a particular direction; his whole philosophy, if such it can be called, for indeed he is rather prose-poet than philosopher, is devoid of a solid rational foundation. By his absolute disregard of the past, and sweeping contempt for every doctrine of historical succession, he leaves no locus standi for his own individuality, no logical starting-point for his own venturesome speculations. Right, triumphantly right, as he often proves in his social judgments, his success is due rather to his flashes of instinctive insight than to any trustworthy reliance on a connected train of reasoning. It is easy to sneer at this intellectual isolation, but it is possible that herein lies the secret of Jefferies’ strength no less than of his failings; the reckless mariner, who cuts himself adrift from his moorings to run before the storm, may perhaps, in some cases, get the first glimpse of the unknown shore.

The quality of Jefferies’ literary style, as of his personal temperament, was rich, sensuous, lavish, diffuse. It has been said that he was no artist, having no faculty of selection; that his work is not a picture, but “a long-drawn sequence of statements;” and that he was merely “bent on emptying his note-book in decent English.”2 It cannot be denied that there is some truth in these strictures, as applied to a considerable portion of Jefferies’ work, though by no means to all of it; for a more unequal writer never gave himself away to unfriendly critics. The cause of this inequality was undoubtedly the hard conditions of his life, which at times compelled him to write for money when he would gladly have matured his thoughts in quietude (he somewhere remarks that he “would infinitely rather be a tallow-chandler, with a good steady income, than an author”), and at other times tempted him to play the part of an inferior novel-writer instead of a first-rate essayist. Furthermore it might justly be charged against him that there are some ugly solecisms scattered here and there in his volumes, and that his habit of adding explanatory dissertations to his remarks on outdoor life—accrescent layers of instruction sandwiched in between patches of narrative—is sometimes very trying to the patience of his readers. But when the reviewer goes so far as to assert that Jefferies lacked “the vitalising imagination,” and that his work is devoid of “the passionate human interest,” then it is time to protest against this curiosity, not to say monstrosity, of mistaken criticism.

A white heat of fervid and passionate imagination everywhere underlies and inspires the ‘Story of my Heart’ and the best of Jefferies’ later essays; despite the simplicity and outward calmness of the language, no sympathetic reader (and what criticism can be discerning unless it be sympathetic?) will overlook the intensity of the human interest that is dominant throughout. It is said that the Wiltshire rustics, Jefferies’ neighbours at Coate, were but little impressed with the spectacle of “Dick Jefferies moonin’ on the Downs,” when they chanced to meet the youthful naturalist absorbed in one of those passionate reveries of which he has left us an account—it is to be hoped that the critics will not give a similar but less pardonable exhibition of bucolic insensibility. To fail to appreciate the beauty of Jefferies’ prose poems is positively not a matter for self-satisfaction. Monotonous his style may be, but only as the burden of a rippling stream in monotonous, flowing on from thought to thought in harmonious sequence. For Jefferies is a great master of the refrain; like his favourite harbinger of summer warmth, the swallow, which from its circling, haunting flight, has been styled by another poet-naturalist “l’oiseau du retour,”3 he loves to haunt and circle round and revisit some special phase or cadence, whose repetition serves as a suggestive undertone to his melody. I have spoken of him as essayist and prose-poet; novelist he can hardly be called in the strict sense of the word, for the great charm of such books as ‘The Dewy Morn’ and ‘Amaryllis at the Fair’ consists in the exceedingly beautiful pictures of country life, rather than in the construction of narrative or the delineation of character.

Finally, there is that most striking fact about Jefferies—the reserve and solitude in which he shrouded his life; a man of retired habits, of few friends, he stood outside and apart from the whole circle of literary society. This aloofness is fully reflected in his writings, for in his general manner of thought and expression he resembles no other author, and appears to be indebted to no other; his faults and his merits are equally peculiar and distinctive. With Thoreau, as I have said, he has certain obvious natural affinities, in his love of open-air life and impatience of conventional institutions; there are passages which make the reader marvel how the son of a Wiltshire yeoman could write in a tone so similar to that of the Concord pencil-maker; but there is no evidence that Jefferies was acquainted with Thoreau’s volumes, or was in any way influenced by his personality—of which, indeed, it seems probable that he never heard at all. In this present age of propagandism and proselytism, and introspective ethics, and concern for one’s own and other people’s souls, Jefferies had absolutely no part—thrift, hygiene, charity, philanthropy, and the rest of it, were to him simply unintelligible; his contemptuous references show that he made no effort to understand or appreciate them. He was a pagan, a pantheist, a worshipper of earth and sea, and above all, of the “great sun burning in the heaven;” he yearned for a free, natural, careless life of physical health and spiritual exaltation, and for a death in harmony with the life that preceded it.

“Could I have my own way after death,” he said, “I would be burned on a pyre of pine wood open to the air, and placed on the summit of the hills. Then let my ashes be scattered abroad—not collected in an urn—freely sown wide and broadcast.

There are few things more pathetic in the annals of our literature than the story of this solitary, unfortunate, yet brave-hearted man, who with “three great giants” against him, as he recorded in his journals, “disease, despair, and poverty,” could yet nourish to the last an indomitable confidence in the happiness of future generations. But with the idealist’s failure he had also the idealist’s success, in the assurance that thought is in itself reality—that to have felt these hopes is in the truest sense to have realised them. In his own words: “To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of Nature. If I cannot achieve it, at least I can think it.”

1 Views and Reviews, by W. E. Henley.
2 W. E. Henley, Athenœum, Dec. 8, 1888.
3 Michelet, L’Oiseau.

H. S. Salt

Temple Bar, June, 1891