Those things which are symbolized by the leaf, the flower, the very touch of earth, have not yet been put before the mind in a definite form, and shaped so that they can be weighed. — “On the Downs.”

Jefferies opens “On the Downs” with a paragraph of Ruskinian proto-cinematic word-painting:

A trailing beam of light sweeps through the combe, broadening out where it touches the ground, and narrowing up to the cloud with which it travels. The hollow groove between the hills is lit up where it falls as with a ray cast from a mirror. It is an acre wide on the sward, and tapers up to the invisible slit in the cloud; a mere speck of light from the sky enlightens the earth, and one thought opens the hearts of all men. On the slope here the furze is flecked with golden spots, and black-headed stonechats perch on ant-hills or stray flints, taking no heed of a quiet wanderer. Afar, blue line upon blue line of down is drawn along in slow curves, and beneath, the distant sea appears a dim plain with five bright streaks, where the sunshine pours through as many openings in the clouds. The wind smells like an apple fresh plucked; suddenly the great beam of light vanishes as the sun comes out, and at once the single beam is merged in the many. [270]

That “trailing beam of light” sweeps through the valley, drawing the reader's eye back up to the sky and cloud before Jefferies punningly connects the external world of nature to the inner world thought: a “mere speck of light from the sky enlightens the earth, and one thought opens the hearts of all men” (emphasis added). The next sentence draws us back to the visual world, placing us — or rather our avatar, the “quiet wanderer” — within a world whose inhabitants completely ignore us. The following sentence then broadens out into a larger scene before the passage closes, first by introducing the sense of smell and then by ending with a description of the way the individual sun beams vanish as the sun comes out from behind a cloud veil, overwhelming all these separate bits of and beams of light.

Continuing to make us feel the beauty and power of the world around us — “Light and colour, freedom and delicious air, give exquisite pleasure to the senses” — Jefferies makes an abrupt turn inward: “but the heart searches deeper.” The desire to experience earth's beauties is a strange “desire . . . that satisfies itself” and yet drives one to seek more:

It springs afresh from the light, from the blue hill-line yonder, from the gorse-flower at hand; to seize upon something that seems in them, which they symbolize and speak of; to take it away within oneself; to absorb it and feel conscious of it — a something that cannot be defined, but which corresponds with all that is highest, truest, and most ideal within the mind. It says, Hope and aspire, strive for largeness of thought. The wind blows, and declares that the mind has capacity for more than has ever yet been brought to it. [271]

Here in other places in his writing Jefferies sounds much like Ruskin when the author of Modern Painters sets forth his views of Typical — that is symbolical — beauty. Ruskin, too, sees that beautiful things in nature “symbolize and speak of” something spiritual. According to Ruskin's theocentric aesthetic theories, we instinctively find beautiful visual qualities, such as symmetry, purity, and moderation, because they are qualities of God. We react so, says Ruskin, because it is God's will and because all men have a divine element in their nature, but men do not receive pleasure from certain forms and colors "because they are illustrative of it [God's nature], nor from any perception that they are illustrative of it, but instinctively and necessarily, as we derive sensual pleasure from the scent of a rose" (Modern Painters, 3.109). In other words, experiencing the beautiful has nothing to do with conscious thought; it arises in the way we are made, in the fact that God made us in His image. The great advantage of such an aesthetic theory lies in the fact that it permits Ruskin to avoid all forms of didacticism — he was after all writing a book in defence of Turner's landscape painting; its disadvantage lay in the act that it depended essentially on his religious belief, which Ruskin had abandoned by the time he was half-way through Modern Painters. The point I want to emphasize here is that both Ruskin and Jefferies believe that “the heart searches deeper” — that the perception, experience, and desire of natural beauty is a fundamental part of human nature.

Interestingly, both men take an anti-intellectual (or more-than-intellectual) approach to the question of our relation to the beautiful. Ruskin, as we have seen, sees it this relation as fundamentally religious and spiritual — or at least he did so before the mid-1850s — whereas the mystical agnostic Jefferies rejects both religion and philosophy (science, too!). According to him,

As the wind to the fixed boulder lying deep in the sward, so is the immaterial mind to the wind. There is capacity in it for more than has ever yet been placed before it. No system, no philosophy yet organized in logical sequence satisfies the inmost depth — fills and fully occupies the well of thought. Read the system, and with the last word it is over — the mind passes on and requires more. It is but a crumb tasted and gone: who should remember a crumb? But the wind blows, not one puff and then stillness: it continues; if it does cease there remains the same air to be breathed. So that the physical part of man thus always provided with air for breathing is infinitely better cared for than his mind, which gets but little crumbs, as it were, coming from old times. These are soon gone, and there remains nothing. Somewhere surely there must be more. [271-72]

The real problem, the fundamental dilemma, says Jefferies, is that Nature has so much materiality, and we have so little thought. “The fulness of Nature and the vacancy of mental existence are strangely contrasted. Nature is full everywhere; there is no chink, no unfurnished space. The mind has only a few thoughts to recall, and those old, and that have been repeated these centuries past” (272) So we must live without expecting answers, without depending upon theories:

Stoop and touch the earth, and receive its influence; touch the flower, and feel its life; face the wind, and have its meaning; let the sunlight fall on the open hand as if you could hold it. Something may be grasped from them all, invisible yet strong. It is the sense of a wider existence — wider and higher. [273]

References

Jefferies, Richard. “On the Downs.” The Hills and the Vale. Ed. Edward Thomas. London: Duckworth, 1909. 270-79. Project Gutenberg e-text.

Landow, George P. The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. [complete text in the Victorian Web]

Ruskin, John. Works, "The Library Edition." eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.


Victorian Web Overview Richard Jefferies

Last modified 26 November 2010