Contrasts & Juxtapositions in Richard Jefferies’ Writing

Having recently determined to read & re-read Jefferies’ work from beginning to end in order of writing, I’ve become conscious of the way he seems to thrive on contrast & juxtaposition, both small chunk and large chunk. It seems to me that his cognitive processes frequently go like this to good effect.

As an example of what I’m talking about, here’s a very small chunk contrast from Hodge & His Masters. Jefferies is talking about going to the local small-time bank:-

…after you have gone through the preliminary ceremony of waiting, which is an institution of the place, the treatment quite changes. Your business is accomplished with practised ease, any information you may require is forthcoming on the instant, and deft fingers pass you the coin. In brief, the whole machinery of banking is here as complete as in Lombard Street. The complicated ramifications of commercial transactions are as well understood and as closely studied as in the ‘City’. No matter what your wishes, provided, of course, that your credentials are unimpeachable, they will be conducted for you satisfactorily and without delay.

Our attention is switched abruptly…

Yet the green meadows are within an arrow shot, and standing on the threshold and looking down a cross street you can see the elms of the hedgerows closing in the prospect. It is really wonderful that such conveniences should be found in so apparently insignificant a place.

On the other hand, there’s a ‘large chunk’ contrast in Jefferies’ all too short life which I find distinctly noteworthy: perhaps it influenced him to adopt such a cognitive pattern in general. In June 1883 he tells Longman that he had finished writing The Story of my Heart which he had been ‘meditating’ for seventeen years. Seventeen years! Just think about it: his dates are 6th November 1848-14th August 1887 which means that he was 22 when he started the meditation and had probably been storing up his visionary thinking a few years before that. Looker says from the age of 18!

Indeed, in the first draft version of The Story of My Heart Jefferies points out that even before leaving Coate (1875) he experienced Sun Life moments.

I have no ritual, no ceremonial, or genuflexion [to achieve moments of soul-life]. If the earth itself dissolved it would make no difference. I recognise my own soul in itself. It will always desire soul-life. If it does not exist after death, during its existence it has so desired.

I used to, at home at Coate, have daily pilgrimages to think these ideas. One to a little fir plantation beside the road, some two miles or more, just to hear the sound of the wind in the firs, and to look Southward – Light-wards – along the road, merely to think it. One at a gate about two or three hundred yards, under an elm, a beautiful view of the hills there. One to a great oak at the top of the field at night – the stars so beautiful and the whole Southward Heaven ablaze with them in early Spring. In a town (Swindon) I could not find any [places for a pilgrimage]. Once I went out by train to Uffington and walked the whole way home by the Ridgeway, then I could feel it and pray.

Meanwhile, during all that short time he was also writing dozens of pieces which, though they sometimes hinted at the ideas that appear in his most profound work, are mostly related to detailed natural observation like these two examples:-

The first from Round About a Great Estate, Chapter VI.

The winding paths traced by a hare in spring as he roams over an arable held show that he must cover a mile within a furlong. From a gateway one morning I watched a hare busy in this way, restlessly passing to and fro over the lands. Every motion was visible, because, although the green wheat was rising in an adjacent field, no crop had yet appeared here. Now the hare came direct towards me, running down a furrow; then he turned short and followed a course like the letter V; next he crossed the angle of the field and came back along the shore of the ditch, under the hedge. Then away to the centre of the field, where he stayed some time exploring up one furrow and down another, his ears and the hump of his back only seen above the clods.

But suddenly he caught a scent of something that alarmed him, and away he went full speed: when on the open ground the peculiar way in which the hind limbs are thrown forward right under the body, thus giving an immense ‘stride’, was clearly displayed…

The second example comes from Amateur Poacher, Chapter XII.

On the verge of the wood which occupies the sloping ground there stands a great oak tree, and down one side of its trunk is a narrow white streak of snow. Leaning against the oak and looking upwards, every branch and twig is visible, lit up by the moon. Overhead the stars are dimmed, but they shine more brightly yonder above the hills. Such leaves as have not yet fallen hang motionless : those that are lying on the ground are covered by the snow, and thus held fast from rustling even were the wind to blow. But there is not the least breath – a great frost is always quiet, profoundly quiet – and the silence is undisturbed even by the fall of a leaf. The frost that kills them holds the leaves till it melts, and then they drop.

Jefferies writes as though such time-bound small chunk events are worthy of the same record as might be devoted to matters of great historical importance; each moment of deliberate observation is treated as though it were of the same significance as, say, William the Conqueror setting foot on the beach at Pevensey in 1066, maybe likely to be remembered thus. A justification might be Jefferies’ assertion that ‘there is nothing that is not wonderful’ – even a grain of sand. Blake’s to ‘see a world in a grain of sand’ goes the other way – big chunk to exceeding small chunk…

All this while he was meditating the production of The Story of My Heart, earlier referred to as Sun Life. He also spent much time not just recording what he grasped on his walks but also detailed descriptions of human activity both agricultural and commercial of which he no doubt had very useful experience during his days as a reporter. Though he asserts that he has nothing to do with politics he also devotes space to what amounts to ‘political’ analysis.

I find it extraordinary that, for the sake of sheer physical survival, writing essays for monetary gain, one part of Jefferies’ mind was, scrutinising things going on around him and above him in the sky, while another part was ‘out of this world’, so to speak, intent on meditating other possibilities for human life, soul-life, a way out of the limitations of everyday existence. It’s arguable that this major split in his being amounted to what could be called Whole-Life-contrast, soul-life & materiality, a state that he learned to live with and made good use of to create his ultimate masterpiece.

In any case, in Chapter 12 of The Story of My Heart he seems to address the Whole-Life-contrast at last:-

I will not permit myself to be taken captive by observing physical phenomena, as many evidently are… the intense concentration of the mind on mechanical effects appears often to render it incapable of perceiving anything that is not mechanical… The restriction of thought to purely mechanical grooves blocks progress in the same way as the restrictions of mediaeval superstition. Let the mind think, dream, imagine: let it have perfect freedom. To shut out the soul is to put us back more than twelve thousand years.

Much is made of Jefferies’ development as a gradual linear progression – from reporter and writer of novels (dismissed by early commentators as worthless) towards a ‘mystical maturity’. It makes it seem as though it was a discrete one step at a time process; but it’s worth pondering the idea that it all took place in less than 20 years, no time at all really. While contemporaneously reading, and struggling to make sense of, ‘these philosophies of old times and the science of the mind…’, such as he found probably in Diogenes Laertius, to support his meditations on the thoughts eventually contained in The Story of My Heart, Jefferies was also writing about what might seem to be the relative triviality of hare movements, the growth of grass, the fall of leaves, the effect of frost and so on. It will surely have been a unified process – writing about the everyday and contemplating ‘soul-work’ both at the same time; the Whole-Life-contrast seems likely to have resulted in a mental pattern that served as a driver for him.

How could one prove that? Perhaps by focussing carefully on Jefferies’ habitual categorising of apparently trivial, everyday, events to see how they often lead to ‘higher’ things.

There’s a straightforward example at the end of the Chapter XX of Hodge and His Masters (called Hodge’s Fields) when Jefferies describes a sudden great downpour of rain.

Fortunately, so fierce a fury cannot last; presently the billows of wind that strike the wood come at longer intervals and with less vigour; then the rain increases, and yet a little while and the storm has swept on. The very fury – the utter abandon – of its rage is its charm; the spirit rises to meet it, and revels in the roar and buffeting.

By-and-by they who have faced it have their reward. The wind sinks, the rain ceases, a pale blue sky shows above, and then yonder appears a majesty of cloud – a Himalaya of vapour. Crag on crag rises the vast pile – such jagged and pointed rocks as never man found on earth, or, if he found, could climb – topped with a peak that towers to the heavens, and leans – visibly leans – and threatens to fall and overwhelm the weak world at its feet. A gleam as of snow glitters on the upper rocks, the passes are gloomy and dark, the faces of the precipices are lit up with a golden gleam from the rapidly- sinking sun. So the magic structure stands and sees the great round disk go down. The night gathers around those giant mounts and dark space receives them.

What was just a sudden downpour of rain takes us up to the heavens and threatens to overwhelm us, physically and cognitively as we read and get into the process; when the sun comes the clouds are described as something magic. The more or less ordinary everyday event becomes capable of dealing us a ‘magic structure’ which stands. Rain & wind, small chunk; sky-landscape & cloud crags, big chunk.

In general, ‘the philosophies of old times’, Buddhism, perhaps, for example, might describe the mental process which results in the thinking that produces such rapturous ‘reward’ by ‘facing up to’ what happened thus:-


It’s a system: the mind that runs it goes beyond the ordinary by recognising that pure sense experience is itself transformed by the awareness of what it is to go beyond time & space even for a split second.

I found a haiku in the following chapter where the original prose does the same kind of thing:-

the milker’s battered hat
punched into the cow’s side –
stars still visible

One of the ways in which a haiku works effectively is by contrasting near and far; the haiku poet Shiki even suggests that to write a decent haiku one should, as one kind of formula method, look at the violet at one’s feet and then view the distant mountain and make a record. Jefferies often functions thus in his prose. DTSuzuki points out that Western writers frequently unwittingly cast ideas with a haikuic structure: near & far, small & large in juxtaposition.

Jefferies’ ‘cataloguing’ is a bold attempt to capture as much as he possibly can of the All, everything there is…

In Hodge’s Fields he catalogues as much of the observational knowledge as is necessary to his drift:-

The winds of March differ, indeed, in a remarkable manner from the gales of the early year, which, even when they blow from a mild quarter, compel one to keep in constant movement because of the aqueous vapour they carry. But the true March wind though too boisterous to be exactly genial, causes a joyous sense of freshness, as if the very blood in the veins were refined and quickened upon inhaling it. There is a difference in its roar – the note is distinct from the harsh sound of the chilly winter blast. On the lonely highway at night, when other noises are silent, the March breeze rushes through the tall elms in a wild cadence. The white clouds hasten over illuminated from behind by a moon approaching the full; every now and then a break shows a clear sky and a star shining. Now a loud roar resounds along the hedgerow like the deafening boom of the surge; it moderates, dies away, then an elm close by bends and sounds as the blast comes again. In another moment the note is caught up and repeated by a distant tree, and so one after another joins the song till the chorus reaches its highest pitch. Then it sinks again, and so continues with pauses and deep inspirations, for March is like a strong man drawing his breath full and long as he starts to run a race.

From a small chunk cataloguing of the Many, we are transported to a big chunk perspective… The near and the far.

The sky, too, like the earth, whose hedges, trees, and meadows are acquiring fresher colours, has now a more lovely aspect. At noon-day, if the clouds be absent, it is a rich azure; after sunset a ruddy glow appears almost all round the horizon, while the thrushes sing in the wood till twilight declines.

At night, when the moon does not rise till late, the heavens are brilliant with stars. In the east Arcturus is up; the Great Bear, the Lesser Bear, and Cassiopeia are ranged about the Pole. Procyon goes before the Dog; the noble constellation of Orion stretches broad across the sky; almost overhead lucent Capella looks down. Aries droops towards the west; the Bull follows with the red Aldebaran and the Pleiades. Behind these, Castor and Pollux, and next the cloud-like, nebulous Cancer. Largest of all, great Sirius is flaming in the south, quivering with the ebb and flow of his light, sometimes with an emerald scintillation like a dewdrop on which a sunbeam glances.

It’s worth noticing how, after this Big Chunk experience we’ve been treated to, we are panned down into the burning couch grass and stubble.

But in the calm of autumn there is time again to look round. Then white columns of smoke rise up slowly into the tranquil atmosphere, till they overtop the tallest elms, and the odour of the burning couch is carried across the meadows from the lately-ploughed stubble, where the weeds have been collected in heaps and fired.

This is but one example of the way Jefferies slips easily from observational knowledge to something beyond time & space and then back again. The swing of his thinking.

This is how I visualise a similar process over a stretch of time:-


I argue that Jefferies’ Whole-Life-contrast depicted here perhaps presented him with a mental patterning which resulted in the way he regularly indulged in contrastive thinking: now & before, new & old, this place & somewhere else, near & far, present & future, serious & comic, the ordinary & the visionary, tick-tock time & no-time at all.


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