n 2003, when a blue plaque was finally unveiled outside the house Jefferies had once rented in Surbiton, Surrey, England, some local newspapers mistakenly referred to him as a poet. This poignant late essay goes a long way to explaining the slip. It was written when he had moved further south and was sick and confined to his room. He had every reason to feel the brutal force of nature. What poetic techniques does he use to express it? Notice that this passage from "Hours of Spring," which is far from static scene-painting, moves on in various ways, which are echoed even in the rhythms and phrasing of the sentences.
I listened to the sweet-briar wind this morning; but for weeks and weeks the stark black oaks stood straight out of the snow as masts of ships with furled sails frozen and icebound in the haven of the deep valley .... Never was such a long winter. For fully two months they stood in the snow in black armour of iron bark unshaken, the front rank of the forest army that would not yield to the northern invader. Snow in broad flakes, snow in semi-flakes, snow raining down in frozen specks, whirling and twisting in fury, ice raining in small shot of frost, howling, sleeting, groaning; the ground like iron, the sky black and faintly yellow — brutal colours of despotism — heaven striking with clenched fist. When at last the general surface cleared, still there remained the trenches and traverses of the enemy, his ramparts drifted high, and his roads marked with snow..... At the height of seven hundred feet the air was sharp as a scythe — a rude barbarian giant wind knocking at the walls of the house with a vast club, so that we crept sideways even to the windows to look out upon the world. There was everything to repel — the cold, the frost, the hardness, the snow, dark sky and ground, leaflessness; the very furze chilled and all benumbed. Yet the forest was still beautiful. There was no day that we did not, all of us, glance out at it and admire it, and say something about it. Harder and harder grew the frost, yet still the forest-clad hills possessed a something that drew the mind open to their largeness and grandeur. Earth is always beautiful — always. Without colour, or leaf, or sunshine, or song of bird and flutter of butterfly's wing; without anything sensuous, without advantage or gilding of summer — the power is ever there. Or shall we not say that the desire of the mind is ever there, and will satisfy itself, in a measure at least, even with the barren wild?
Most exhilarating of all is the way Jefferies's own spirit rises to meet and embrace the very hostility which he describes so powerfully. He responds wholeheartedly to the harsh unornamented splendour of the winter scenery — and appreciates, too, the uniquely human instinct and capacity to recognise (or is it construe?) such splendour. You might like to compare/contrast the ideas in this passage with those in Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man." Both writers had strong links with Transcendentalism and are not as disparate as they might seem.
In what ways does this recognition of a beauty in nature that exists completely apart from human needs or even existence differ from earlier romantic attitudes? What Victorian poets parallel Jefferies?
Field and Hedgerow: Being the Last Essays of Richard Jefferies (Collected by his Widow), 1889, available in full at www.gutenberg.org/etext/7030
- Word-painting defined
- Being There: The Role of Word-Painting in Ruskin's Art Criticism
- Examples of John Ruskin's Word Painting
- Examples of Word-painting from Ann Radliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho
Last modified 23 January 2006