“From earth and sea and sun, from night, the stars, from day, the trees, the hills, from my own soul, from these I think”
Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was a journalist and writer who has been described as “an outstanding English ‘natural’ mystic of the nineteenth century”. (1)
In his all-too-short life (he died at the age of 38), Jefferies evolved his own distinctive philosophy of nature, based on an existential joy at being alive and a belief in “the inner meaning of the sun, the light, the earth, the trees and grass”. (2)
In his best work, such as The Story of My Heart, Jefferies’ carefully-observed descriptions of the natural world are merely the means by which he explores something much deeper.
Jefferies understood that nature was the immediate reality of a universal whole and thus the basis of everything worthwhile: “Though I cannot name the ideal good, it seems to me that it will be in some way closely associated with the ideal beauty of Nature”. (3)
He reached a connection with nature and the universe by detaching himself from the individual ego and discovering his true identity as part of a holistic cosmic unity, declaring: “From earth and sea and sun, from night, the stars, from day, the trees, the hills, from my own soul, from these I think”. (4)
But Jefferies did not detach himself from the physical reality of his own body or his physical surroundings – instead, he fully immersed himself in them.
Life and corporeal reality were the gods of his nature religion and he once wrote in a letter that his favourite literary lines were those in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust:
“All theory, my friend, is grey,
But green is life’s bright golden tree”. (5)
Jefferies’ dream of ‘Nirvana’ was not an out-of-body experience but a very sensual one. He wrote in the 1875 essay ‘Marlborough Forest’: “The subtle influence of Nature penetrates every limb and every vein, fills the soul with a perfect contentment, an absence of all wish except to lie there half in sunshine, half in shade for ever, in a Nirvana of indifference of all but the exquisite delight of simple living“. (6)
His yearning was not to transcend his physical existence as a living creature but to expand and deepen it to include a sense of being the wider organic reality to which he knew he belonged.
He wrote in ‘Nature and Eternity’: “Would that it were possible for the heart and mind to enter into all the life that glows and teems upon the earth – to feel with it, hope with it, sorrow with it, and thereby to become a grander, nobler being”. (7)
A philosophy built around nature was bound to find fault with the industrial capitalism which dominated English life in the 19th century, as it still dominates today.
In ‘Round About a Great Estate’, Jefferies joined William Morris and others in lamenting the harmful effect of machines. Explains Edward Thomas in his 1909 biography of Jefferies: “In his visit to Tibbald, the miller, when they talk about the millstones and ‘the care, the skill, the forethought, and the sense of just proportion’ of the millwright, he shows again how he regrets that machinery, in destroying the handicraft, has taken away yet another means of culture from the countryman”. (8)
Jefferies repeatedly denounced the notorious Poor Law of the time, with its system of workhouses. He characterised the application of the word “pauper” to any human being as “the greatest, the vilest, the most unpardonable crime that could be committed”. (9)
He wrote: “Modern civilisation has put out the spiritual Devil and produced the Demon of Dynamite… A human being is not a dog, yet is treated worse than a dog. Force these human dogs to learn to read with empty stomachs – stomachs craving for a piece of bread while education is crammed into them. In manhood, if unfortunate, set them to break stones. If imbecility supervene, give them bread and water. In helpless age, give them the cup of cold water. This is the way to breed dynamite”. (10)
In some fragmentary ‘Notes on the Labour Question’ published in the Pall Mall Gazette after his death, Jefferies wrote: “One man whipped with Hunger toils half-naked in the Pit, face to face with death; the other is crowned by his fellows, sitting in state with fine wines and the sound of jubilee. This is the Divine Right of Capital”. (11)
Biographer Henry Salt concludes that as regards the labour question in general, Jefferies “was in heart and feeling – however much he might have resented the name and association – a communist”. (12)
Salt also describes Jefferies as “an enthusiastic advocate of the ‘return to nature’” (13) and Jefferies imagined this return in his 1885 novel After London.
This was an early work of post-apocalyptic science fiction, in which industrial civilization has collapsed and the capital of the British empire has disappeared beneath an oozing, toxic swamp.
Morris was greatly impressed by the novel and wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in 1885 that “absurd hopes curled round my heart as I read it”, adding in a second letter: “I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilization’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, probably before very long: what a joy it is to think of! And how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies”. (14)
Jefferies himself wrote, in his Notebooks of 1883: “We must begin again like the Caveman. No knowledge at present of use since it does not help. We must destroy the idea of our knowing anything. We must fully acknowledge that we know nothing and begin again”. (15)
Video link: Experimental group reading of Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart (1hr 19 mins)
Audio link: Radio play about Richard Jefferies (43 mins)
1. R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane: An Inquiry Into some Varieties of Praeternatural Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 45.
2. Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart: My Autobiography (Sussex: Winter Oak Press, 2014), p. 36.
3. Richard Jefferies, ‘Nature in the Louvre’, cit. Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies (London: Faber & Faber, 1978), p. 274.
4. Jefferies, The Story of My Heart, p. 25.
5. Thomas, p. 186.
6. Richard Jefferies, ‘Marlborough Forest’, cit. Thomas, p.100.
7. Richard Jefferies, ‘Nature and Eternity’, cit. Thomas, p. 176.
8. Thomas, p. 133.
9. Henry Salt, Richard Jefferies: His Life and His Ideals (Sussex: Winter Oak Press, 2014), p. 64.
10. Richard Jefferies, ‘The Field-Play’, The Life of the Fields (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 39.
11. Richard Jefferies, ‘Notes on the Labour Question’, Pall Mall Gazette (November 10, 1891), cit. Salt, p. 67.
12. Salt, p. 65.
13. Salt, p. 25.
14. John Fowles, Introduction, Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) pp. vii-viii.
15. Richard Jefferies, Notebooks, cit. Fowles, p. xvi.