RICHARD JEFFERIES (1848–87)
Extract from The Story of My Heart (London: Longmans, 1883), pp. 71–92. Chs. V–VI

CHAPTER V.

[…]

Later on I began to have daily pilgrimages to think these things. There was a feeling that I must go somewhere, and be alone. It was a necessity to have a few minutes of this separate life every day; my mind required to live its own life apart from other things. A great oak at a short distance was one resort, and sitting on the grass at the roots, or leaning against the trunk and looking over the quiet meadows towards the bright southern sky, I could live my own life a little while. Behind the trunk I was alone; I liked to lean against it; to touch the lichen on the rough bark. High in the wood of branches the birds were not alarmed; they sang, or called, and passed to and fro happily. The wind moved the leaves, and they replied to it softly; and now at this distance of time I can see the fragments of sky up through the boughs. Bees were always humming in the green field; ring-doves went over swiftly, flying for the woods.

Of the sun I was conscious; I could not look at it, but the boughs held back the beams so that I could feel the sun’s presence pleasantly. They shaded the sun, yet let me know that it was there. There came to me a delicate, but at the same time a deep, strong, and sensuous enjoyment of the beautiful green earth, the beautiful sky and sun; I felt them, they gave me inexpressible delight, as if they embraced and poured out their love upon me. It was I who loved them, for my heart was broader than the earth; it is broader now than even then, more thirsty and desirous. After the sensuous enjoyment always came the thought, the desire: That I might be like this; that I might have the inner meaning of the sun, the light, the earth, the trees and grass, translated into some growth of excellence in myself, both of body and of mind; greater perfection of physique, greater perfection of mind and soul; that I might be higher in myself. To this oak I came daily for a long time; sometimes only for a minute, for just to view the spot was enough. In the bitter cold of spring, when the north wind blackened everything, I used to come now and then at night to look from under the bare branches at the splendour of the southern sky. The stars burned with brilliance, broad Orion and flashing Sirius—there are more or brighter constellations visible then than all the year; and the clearness of the air and the blackness of the sky—black, not clouded—let them gleam in their fulness. They lifted me—they gave me fresh vigour of soul. Not all that the stars could have given, had they been destinies, could have satiated me. This, all this, and more, I wanted in myself.

There was a place a mile or so along the road where the hills could be seen much better; I went there frequently to think the same thought. Another spot was by an elm, a very short walk, where openings in the trees, and the slope of the ground, brought the hills well into view. This, too, was a favourite thinking-place. Another was a wood, half an hour’s walk distant, through part of which a rude track went, so that it was not altogether inclosed. The ash-saplings, and the trees, the firs, the hazel bushes—to be among these enabled me to be myself. From the buds of spring to the berries of autumn, I always liked to be there. Sometimes in spring there was a sheen of blue-bells covering acres; the doves cooed; the blackbirds whistled sweetly; there was a taste of green things in the air. But it was the tall firs that pleased me most; the glance rose up the flame-shaped fir-tree, tapering to its green tip, and above was the azure sky. By aid of the tree I felt the sky more. By aid of everything beautiful I felt myself, and in that intense sense of consciousness prayed for greater perfection of soul and body.

Afterwards, I walked almost daily more than two miles along the road to a spot where the hills began, where from the first rise the road could be seen winding southwards over the hills, open and uninclosed. I paused a minute or two by a clump of firs, in whose branches the wind always sighed— there is always a movement of the air on a hill. Southwards the sky was illumined by the sun, southwards the clouds moved across the opening or pass in the amphitheatre, and southwards, though far distant, was the sea. There I could think a moment. These pilgrimages gave me a few sacred minutes daily; the moment seemed holy when the thought or desire came in its full force.

A time came when, having to live in a town, these pilgrimages had to be suspended. The wearisome work on which I was engaged would not permit of them. But I used to look now and then, from a window, in the evening at a birch tree at some distance; its graceful boughs drooped across the glow of the sunset. The thought was not suspended; it lived in me always. A bitterer time still came when it was necessary to be separated from those I loved. There is little indeed in the more immediate suburbs of London to gratify the sense of the beautiful. Yet there was a cedar by which I used to walk up and down, and think the same thoughts as under the great oak in the solitude of the sunlit meadows. In the course of slow time happier circumstances brought us together again, and, though near London, at a spot where there was easy access to meadows and woods. Hills that purify those who walk on them there were not. Still I thought my old thoughts.

I was much in London, and, engagements completed, I wandered about in the same way as in the woods of former days. From the stone bridges I looked down on the river; the gritty dust, and straws that lie on the bridges, flew up and whirled round with every gust from the flowing tide; gritty dust that settles in the nostrils and on the lips, the very residuum of all that is repulsive in the greatest city of the world. The noise of the traffic and the constant pressure from the crowds passing, their incessant and disjointed talk, could not distract me. One moment at least I had, a moment when I thought of the push of the great sea forcing the water to flow under the feet of these crowds, the distant sea strong and splendid; when I saw the sunlight gleam on the tidal wavelets; when I felt the wind, and was conscious of the earth, the sea, the sun, the air, the immense forces working on, while the city hummed by the river. Nature was deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones. If the tide had ebbed, and the masts of the vessels were tilted as the hulls rested on the shelving mud, still even the blackened mud did not prevent me seeing the water as water flowing to the sea. The sea had drawn down, and the wavelets washing the strand here as they hastened were running the faster to it. Eastwards from London Bridge the river raced to the ocean.

The bright morning sun of summer heated the eastern parapet of London Bridge; I stayed in the recess to acknowledge it. The smooth water was a broad sheen of light, the built-up river flowed calm and silent by a thousand doors, rippling only where the stream chafed against a chain. Red pennants drooped, gilded vanes gleamed on polished masts, black-pitched hulls glistened like a black rook’s feathers in sunlight; the clear air cut out the forward angles of the warehouses, the shadowed wharves were quiet in shadows that carried light; far down the ships that were hauling out moved in repose, and with the stream floated away into the summer mist. There was a faint blue colour in the air hovering between the built-up banks, against the lit walls, in the hollows of the houses. The swallows wheeled and climbed, twittered and glided downwards. Burning on the great sun stood in the sky, heating the parapet, glowing steadfastly upon me as when I rested in the narrow valley grooved out in prehistoric times. Burning on steadfast, and ever present as my thought. Lighting the broad river, the broad walls; lighting the least speck of dust; lighting the great heaven; gleaming on my finger-nail. The fixed point of day—the sun. I was intensely conscious of it; I felt it; I felt the presence of the immense powers of the universe; I felt out into the depths of the ether. So intensely conscious of the sun, the sky, the limitless space, I felt too in the midst of eternity then, in the midst of the supernatural, among the immortal, and the greatness of the material realised the spirit. By these I saw my soul; by these I knew the supernatural to be more intensely real than the sun. I touched the supernatural, the immortal, there that moment.

When, weary of walking on the pavements, I went to rest in the National Gallery, I sat and rested before one or other of the human pictures. I am not a picture lover, they are flat surfaces, but those that I call human are nevertheless beautiful. The knee in Daphnis and Chloe and the breast are like living things; they draw the heart towards them, the heart must love them. I lived in looking; without beauty there is no life for me, the divine beauty of flesh is life itself to me. The shoulder in the Surprise, the rounded rise of the bust, the exquisite tints of the ripe skin, momentarily gratified the sea-thirst in me. For I thirst with all the thirst of the salt sea, and the sun-heated sands dry for the tide, with all the sea I thirst for beauty. And I know full well that one lifetime, however long, cannot fill my heart. My throat and tongue and whole body have often been parched and feverish dry with this measureless thirst, and again moist to the fingers’ ends like a sappy bough. It burns in me as the sun burns in the sky.

The glowing face of Cytherea in Titian’s Venus and Adonis, the heated cheek, the lips that kiss each eye that gazes on them, the desiring glance, the golden hair—sunbeams moulded into features—this face answered me. Juno’s wide back and mesial groove, is anything so lovely as the back? Cytherea’s poised hips unveiled for judgment; these called up the same thirst I felt on the green sward in the sun, on the wild beach listening to the quiet sob as the summer wave drank at the land. I will search the world through for beauty. I came here and sat to rest before these in the days when I could not afford to buy so much as a glass of ale, weary and faint from walking on stone pavements. I came later on, in better times, often straight from labours which though necessary will ever be distasteful, always to rest my heart with loveliness. I go still; the divine beauty of flesh is life itself to me. It was, and is, one of my London pilgrimages.

Another was to the Greek sculpture galleries in the British Museum. The statues are not, it is said, the best; broken too, and mutilated, and seen in a dull, commonplace light. But they were shape—divine shape of man and woman; the form of limb and torso, of bust and neck, gave me a sighing sense of rest. These were they who would have stayed with me under the shadow of the oaks while the blackbirds fluted and the south air swung the cowslips. They would have walked with me among the reddened gold of the wheat. They would have rested with me on the hill-tops and in the narrow valley grooved of ancient times. They would have listened with me to the sob of the summer sea drinking the land. These had thirsted of sun, and earth, and sea, and sky. Their shape spoke this thirst and desire like mine—if I had lived with them from Greece till now I should not have had enough of them. Tracing the form of limb and torso with the eye gave me a sense of rest.

Sometimes I came in from the crowded streets and ceaseless hum; one glance at these shapes and I became myself. Sometimes I came from the Reading-room, where under the dome I often looked up from the desk and realised the crushing hopelessness of books, useless, not equal to one bubble borne along on the running brook I had walked by, giving no thought like the spring when I lifted the water in my hand and saw the light gleam on it. Torso and limb, bust and neck instantly returned me to myself; I felt as I did lying on the turf listening to the wind among the grass; it would have seemed natural to have found butterflies fluttering among the statues. The same deep desire was with me. I shall always go to speak to them; they are a place of pilgrimage; wherever there is a beautiful statue there is a place of pilgrimage.

I always stepped aside, too, to look awhile at the head of Julius Caesar. The domes of the swelling temples of his broad head are full of mind, evident to the eye as a globe is full of substance to the sense of feeling in the hands that hold it. The thin worn cheek is entirely human; endless difficulties surmounted by endless labour are marked in it, as the sandblast, by dint of particles ceaselessly driven, carves the hardest material. If circumstances favoured him he made those circumstances his own by marvellous labour, so as justly to receive the credit of chance. Therefore the thin cheek is entirely human—the sum of human life made visible in one face—labour, and endurance, and mind, and all in vain. A shadow of deep sadness has gathered on it in the years that have passed because endurance was without avail. It is sadder to look at than the grass-grown tumulus I used to sit by, because it is a personality, and also on account of the extreme folly of our human race ever destroying our greatest.

Far better had they endeavoured, however hopelessly, to keep him living till this day. Did but the race this hour possess one-hundredth part of his breadth of view, how happy for them! Of whom else can it be said that he had no enemies to forgive because he recognised no enemy? Nineteen hundred years ago he put in actual practice, with more arbitrary power than any despot, those very principles of humanity which are now put forward as the highest culture. But he made them to be actual things under his sway.

The one man filled with mind; the one man without avarice, anger, pettiness, littleness; the one man generous and truly great of all history. It is enough to make one despair to think of the mere brutes butting to death the great-minded Cæsar. He comes nearest to the ideal of a design-power arranging the affairs of the world for good in practical things. Before his face—the divine brow of mind above, the human suffering-drawn cheek beneath—my own thought became set and strengthened. That I could but look at things in the broad way he did; that I could but possess one particle of such width of intellect to guide my own course, to cope with and drag forth from the iron-resisting forces of the universe some one thing of my prayer for the soul and for the flesh!

CHAPTER VI.

There is a place in front of the Royal Exchange where the wide pavement reaches out like a promontory. It is in the shape of a triangle with a rounded apex. A stream of traffic runs on either side, and other streets send their currents down into the open space before it. Like the spokes of a wheel converging streams of human life flow into this agitated pool. Horses and carriages, carts, vans, omnibuses, cabs, every kind of conveyance cross each other’s course in every possible direction. Twisting in and out by the wheels and under the horses’ heads, working a devious way, men and women of all conditions wind a path over. They fill the interstices between the carriages and blacken the surface, till the vans almost float on human beings. Now the streams slacken, and now they rush amain, but never cease; dark waves are always rolling down the incline opposite, waves swell out from the side rivers, all London converges into this focus. There is an indistinguishable noise—it is not clatter, hum, or roar, it is not resolvable; made up of a thousand thousand footsteps, from a thousand hoofs, a thousand wheels—of haste, and shuffle, and quick movements, and ponderous loads; no attention can resolve it into a fixed sound.

Blue carts and yellow omnibuses, varnished carriages and brown vans, green omnibuses and red cabs, pale loads of yellow straw, rusty-red iron clanking on paintless carts, high white wool-packs, grey horses, bay horses, black teams; sunlight sparkling on brass harness, gleaming from carriage panels; jingle, jingle, jingle! An intermixed and intertangled, ceaselessly changing jingle, too, of colour; flecks of colour champed, as it were, like bits in the horses’ teeth, frothed and strewn about, and a surface always of dark-dressed people winding like the curves on fast-flowing water. This is the vortex and whirlpool, the centre of human life to-day on the earth. Now the tide rises and now it sinks, but the flow of these rivers always continues. Here it seethes and whirls, not for an hour only, but for all present time, hour by hour, day by day, year by year.

Here it rushes and pushes, the atoms triturate and grind, and, eagerly thrusting by, pursue their separate ends. Here it appears in its unconcealed personality, indifferent to all else but itself, absorbed and rapt in eager self, devoid and stripped of conventional gloss and politeness, yielding only to get its own way; driving, pushing, carried on in a stress of feverish force like a bullet, dynamic force apart from reason or will, like the force that lifts the tides and sends the clouds onwards. The friction of a thousand interests evolves a condition of electricity in which men are moved to and fro without considering their steps. Yet the agitated pool of life is stonily indifferent, the thought is absent or preoccupied, for it is evident that the mass are unconscious of the scene in which they act.

But it is more sternly real than the very stones, for all these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances; they cannot stay, they must go, their necks are in the slave’s ring, they are beaten like seaweed against the solid walls of fact. In ancient times, Xerxes, the king of kings, looking down upon his myriads, wept to think that in a hundred years not one of them would be left. Where will be these millions of to-day in a hundred years? But, further than that, let us ask, Were then will be the sum and outcome of their labour? If they wither away like summer grass, will not at least a result be left which those of a hundred years hence may be the better for? No, not one jot! There will not be any sum or outcome or result of this ceaseless labour and movement; it vanishes in the moment that it is done, and in a hundred years nothing will be there, for nothing is there now. There will be no more sum or result than accumulates from the motion of a revolving cowl on a housetop. Nor do they receive any more sunshine during their lives, for they are unconscious of the sun.

I used to come and stand near the apex of the promontory of pavement which juts out towards the pool of life; I still go there to ponder. Burning in the sky, the sun shone on me as when I rested in the narrow valley carved in prehistoric time. Burning in the sky, I can never forget the sun. The heat of summer is dry there as if the light carried an impalpable dust; dry, breathless heat that will not let the skin respire, but swathes up the dry fire in the blood. But beyond the heat and light, I felt the presence of the sun as I felt it in the solitary valley, the presence of the resistless forces of the universe; the sun burned in the sky as I stood and pondered. Is there any theory, philosophy, or creed, is there any system or culture, any formulated method able to meet and satisfy each separate item of this agitated pool of human life? By which they may be guided, by which hope, by which look forward? Not a mere illusion of the craving heart—something real, as real as the solid walls of fact against which, like drifted seaweed, they are dashed; something to give each separate personality sunshine and a flower in its own existence now; some thing to shape this million-handed labour to an end and outcome that will leave more sunshine and more flowers to those who must succeed? Something real now, and not in the spirit-land; in this hour now, as I stand and the sun burns. Can any creed, philosophy, system, or culture endure the test and remain unmolten in this fierce focus of human life?

Last modified, 27-Sep-2005 .
This site is maintained by Anthony Mandal.