Richard Jefferies

Richard Jefferies

A Study. By H. S. Salt. Macmillian & Co.

Science, which the world has come to revere as it once respected ecclesiastical authority, has elaborated and perfected in recent years a dogma that is most pleasing to the common herd. Genius, it teaches, is a form of physical or mental abnormality, and the perfect man, and being well-poised in body and brain, is he who has a healthy appetite and no original thoughts. The “normal” man, it says, is he whose soul feasts on “A Trip to Chinatown,” and whose visions are caused only by lobster-salad eaten late at night. Napoleon was an epileptic, continues the modern Holy Office, adducing proofs; Jeanne d’Arc was a sufferer from hysteria; Keats, Swift, Shelley, Chopin and Poe were insane; Victor Hugo suffered from what the Germans so tersely call Grössenwahn; and Carlyle was so great only because he was an incurable dyspeptic. Going back to antiquity, Prof. Lombroso is authority for the statement that Alexander and Plato were so great intellectually, because physically they were abnormally small; Æsop, Byron and Talleyrand, because they were deformed; Pascal and Cuvier, because they had cerebral lesions. The fact that Cuvier has water on the brain, also, must be held, therefore, to have contributed still further to his greatness. “Even Darwin,” according to the same Italian savant, “give signs throughout life of moral indisposition.” It remains now for Science to inform the world of the moral or bodily failings of Washington, Lincoln, Bismarck and Gladstone, and to decree that all the great men whom the Genius of History has placed in the niches of immortality, on his march through the hall of the ages, were only half-healthy in body or mind. But Science has neglected to tell us thus far what is wrong with those sufferers from hysteria, insanity, dyspepsia or other ills, that are not geniuses. The world, however, which understands as much of the processes of scientific reasoning as it did of the theology of the Middle Ages, accepts the conclusions of the former, as it did the edicts of the latter, without question. Its bump of blind belief, which it has vigorously and continuously exercised since the days of the cave-dwellers, has something to occupy itself with, and it is delighted with the new theory, never dreaming of the possibility that the scientific dogma of to-day may prove the superstition of to-morrow.

All this apropos of Mr. Salt’s excellent handbook for the use of students of English letters. It is neither a biography nor a literary appreciation, but partakes of the nature of both, being a study of the author in the light of his work, and of his work with his outer and inner life as guides. Mr. Salt has written a very sympathetic book. It appears to the heart as well as to the brain; it makes the reader feel the subtle influences of Nature, and makes him understand the sensitive mind on which they left the impressions that were developed in “The Story of my Heart.” But the growth of a delicate mind and soul in a man who was by birth and association a child of the fields and the woods, and who became their worshipper, has not satisfied Mr. Salt’s modern “documentary” method; and so he has quoted an American physician as authority for the statement that Jefferies was scrofulous and hysterical. Hitherto, the unscientific have tried to cure the one with cod-liver oil and the other with cold baths and physical exercise; henceforth, they will respect and foster them as the wells of genius undefiled. By the scientific propagation, then, of insanity, scrofula, hysteria and all that was contained in Pandora’s box, we may even hope to succeed some day in making genius hereditary. Giving a new name to an old mystery does not solve it, and the simple process followed by the three sons in “The Tale of a Tub,” when they wanted to find “shoulder knots” in their father’s will, seems to be applicable to science to-day as it was to theology—in the days of Swift.

In writing his book, Mr. Salt forgot genius defies definition, and in striving to understand what we can only feel, he found in Dr. Samuel A. Jones’s “Notes on Richard Jefferies” the simple explanation—scrofula and hysteria—which he adopted, introducing thereby into his book the only discordant note it contains. Jefferies loved Nature and was beloved of her. He felt her tenderness, and gave it word. He attempted not to define; he merely interpreted. And therefore, to the end of his sombre days, his soul was like that of the child, which lies in the fields and whispers to the flowers, and sees their smile and hears their answer, because it loves and feels but does not reason.

The book contains five chapters, treating successively of Jefferies “the man,” “the naturalist,” “the poet-naturalist,” “the thinker,” and “the writer,” and in each of them the author imparts something new that is of lasting value and interest. His work can be recommended to all students of literature, and to all lovers of Nature.

The Critic, New York, March 3, 1894, p. 143