Reading Jefferies (70)


Reading a few books for the first time, but mostly re-reading with new eyes what’s been on my shelves for many years, I’ve been struck by the drift of Jefferies’ way of putting things together, his cast of mind, notably his way of making contrasts between this & that: in essays, reportage and novels (where one has to be more mentally athletic to keep up with him leaping from chapter to chapter) he often moves between now & before, new & old, this place & somewhere else, present & future, serious & comic, the ordinary & the visionary, tick-tock time & no-time at all. Reading Jefferies’ books not ‘…in the common sense of the term [but thinking through them] so that ‘not a sentence but what [is] thought over, examined, and its full meaning grasped and firmly implanted in the memory…’ (World’s End) one can get the feel of his mental processes which early commentators perhaps missed by just running their eyes along the lines of words without a lively ‘grasping’ for possible meanings.

When Bevis read an old poem from an ancient book the pages of which had ‘not been cut by machinery’ (what a joy to read a book like that!) he ‘put himself so into it that he did it all; he bribed the porter, he played the harp and drew the sword; there were no words to him, it was a living picture in which he himself acted…’

Bevis/Jefferies here reveals his mode of apprehension when reading: in NLP terms he is Visual/Kinaesthetic. Elsewhere considering his deep awareness of sounds he is also Auditory. This makes him the complete rounded individual.

The house where I live, a mile into Lincolnshire from Norfolk, is way out in the middle of nowhere in the flatness where the Nene runs into The Wash. Before March 2020 when I went into a happy isolation here I used to enjoy the process of making myself fully conscious of the contrast between my personal idyll and the experience of being in London with all its turmoil, traffic & ticking towers. This is how I did it: when I was standing crushed in a rush-hour tube train I would bring to mind what I could have seen, heard & felt had I been standing at the top of the drive down to my house – the wind off the river, the sound of the tall trees moving, drinking in the long distance of the sky, the the feeling of infinite space; by contrast, when I was there at the top of the drive, I’d visualise surviving the rush-hour crush, hearing the grinding & squealing of the train in a dark tunnel, and seeing human weariness in the mass. It got so that I could move my attention swiftly between the two mental experiences any time I chose (just as I’m doing right now!) and, pausing in the middle of the swing (reconstructing both, but identifying with neither), find my one & only self, the actor I am.

I was reminded of this exercise when I reread a favourite passage in Hodge and his Masters. It’s one of many passages in Jefferies’ writing where he seems to bring to mind contrasts of various kinds, vivifying them by sight, sound & feeling to find his real being, his meta-existence, the one beyond the ordinary, in the gap.

In the chapter called The Juke’s Country, for example, he contrasts ‘the sound of the bees busy at the bramble flowers [taking]… no heed, [as] they pass from flower to flower, seeking the sweet honey to store at home in the hive, as their bee ancestors did before the Roman legions marched…’ with the sound of machinery on the other side of the hedge. Jefferies stands outside the sound, sight & feeling of the contrast, goes meta to it, and comments: ‘their habits have not changed; their ‘social’ relations are the same; they have not called in the aid of machinery to enlarge their liquid wealth, or to increase the facility of collecting it…’

The ‘low murmur rather than a buzz along the hedgerow… [in] the hot summer breeze’ is to be contrasted with what’s happening on the other side of the hedge: ‘…the thumping, rattling, booming sound of hollow metal striking against the ground or in contact with other metal…’

It’s the ‘…careless handling of milk tins, dragged hither and thither by the men who are getting the afternoon milk ready for transit to the railway station miles away. Each tin bears a brazen badge engraved with the name of the milkman who will retail its contents in distant London. It may be delivered to the countess in Belgravia, and reach her dainty lip in the morning chocolate, or it may be eagerly swallowed up by the half-starved children of some back court in the purlieus of the Seven Dials…’

We swing from country to specific, deeply constrasting, parts of London where ‘sturdy milkmaids may still be seen’ (in 1880). They sweep ‘the crowded pavement clear before them as they walk with swinging tread, a yoke on their shoulders, from door to door…’ A striking image.

Jefferies steps outside the picture, ‘goes meta’, as I like to think of it: ‘Some remnant of the traditional dairy thus survives in the stony streets that are separated so widely from the country… [swinging back there very briefly], where beside the hay, the hedgerows, the bees, the flowers that precede the blackberries [and here the contrast ] – here in the heart of the meadows the romance has departed. Everything is mechanical or scientific. From the refrigerator that cools the milk, the thermometer that tests its temperature, the lactometer that proves its quality, all is mechanical precision…’

And then we go back into the country scene where Jefferies points out the changes and lives in them.

‘…The tins themselves are metal – wood, the old country material for almost every purpose, is eschewed – and they are swung up into a waggon specially built for the purpose. It is the very antithesis of the jolting and cumbrous waggon used for generations in the hay-fields and among the corn. It is light, elegantly proportioned, painted, varnished – the work rather of a coachbuilder than a cartwright. The horse harnessed in it is equally unlike the cart-horse. A quick, wiry horse, that may be driven in a trap or gig, is the style – one that will rattle along and catch the train…’

In just a couple of pages, presented with the opportunity to ‘grasp’ sensations, visual, auditory and kinaesthetic, rather than just reading along the lines, we are stimulated to swing the mind back & forth, country to town, old & new, high class & low. It would make an interesting study to notice the way Jefferies achieves this throughout his work, especially the way, no doubt other-than-consciously, he works things in order to get back to his true self.

milk churns

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