The first paragraph of Richard Jefferies “Pageant of Summer” (complete text) provides a fine example of the subtle complexities of his nature writing. Anyone who has read his other writings that place his reader within a landscape will notice that, unlike his usual descriptions of setting, this paragraph employs an unusually high percentage of active verbs, and this departure from his more characteristic style makes the passage read very much like Ruskin's word-painting in Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice:
Green rushes, long and thick, standing up above the edge of the ditch, told the hour of the year as distinctly as the shadow on the dial the hour of the day. Green and thick and sappy to the touch, they felt like summer, soft and elastic, as if full of life, mere rushes though they were. On the fingers they left a green scent; rushes have a separate scent of green, so, too, have ferns, very different to that of grass or leaves. Rising from brown sheaths, the tall stems enlarged a little in the middle, like classical columns, and heavy with their sap and freshness, leaned against the hawthorn sprays. From the earth they had drawn its moisture, and made the ditch dry; some of the sweetness of the air had entered into their fibres, and the rushes — the common rushes — were full of beautiful summer. The white pollen of early grasses growing on the edge was dusted from them each time the hawthorn boughs were shaken by a thrush. These lower sprays came down in among the grass, and leaves and grass-blades touched. Smooth round stems of angelica, big as a gun-barrel, hollow and strong, stood on the slope of the mound, their tiers of well-balanced branches rising like those of a tree. Such a sturdy growth pushed back the ranks of hedge parsley in full white flower, which blocked every avenue and winding bird's-path of the bank. But the "gix," or wild parsnip, reached already high above both, and would rear its fluted stalk, joint on joint, till it could face a man. Trees they were to the lesser birds, not even bending if perched on; but though so stout, the birds did not place their nests on or against them. Something in the odour of these umbelliferous plants, perhaps, is not quite liked; if brushed or bruised they give out a bitter greenish scent. Under their cover, well shaded and hidden, birds build, but not against or on the stems, though they will affix their nests to much less certain supports. With the grasses that overhung the edge, with the rushes in the ditch itself, and these great plants on the mound, the whole hedge was wrapped and thickened. No cunning of glance could see through it; it would have needed a ladder to help any one look over. [Emphasis added: bold for active verbs, underlining for passive or intransitive ones.]
We notice immediately how uncharacteristically few forms of “to be” appear here, after which we feel how the active verbs that dominate the passage drive the reader through the paragraph, allowing us to experience this vegetation vicariously with several of our senses. Jefferies opens by pointing us toward the “green rushes” whose color and shape he details before explaining — really narrating — in the following sentence how we experience them with the various forms of touch, for we feel them as both “thick” and “sappy” — sticky. Next we smell the rushes, for after one touches them, they leave “a green scent” on one's fingers. Moving through his sentences filled with lush sibilants, we find our attention directed first to these rushes, next to animals (birds), and finally to human beings when he explains that one would have needed a ladder to “to help any one look over” these “great plants.”
In fact, despite providing so many details of this tiny patch of nature, Jefferies never omits human presence. Like other masters of experience, he leads us through a proto-cinematic tour of a natural scene — here rushes growing on the edge of a ditch. At the same time, he also uses comparisons that emphasize we have not escaped from humankind when he describes the “smooth round stems of angelica” “as big as a gun-barrel, hollow and strong” — a comparison that might seem odd to many city dwellers but not to Jefferies's hunter, poacher, or boy like Bevis. Near the very beginning of his attempt to immerse us in nature, in the natural world he had perceived, he calls upon a commonplace example and image of civilization, for his fourth sentence describes “tall stems enlarged a little in the middle, like classical columns.”
Furthermore, drawing on another of our senses, the sense of time, his first sentence immerses us in human chronological time by comparing, and thus linking, his green rushes to the human technology of the sundial. This sentence has at least a double effect. It links rather than opposes the technological to the organic — a Victorian and very unromantic move, one may point out, because unlike, say, Wordsworth and Coleridge, he does not oppose mechanical and organic. Secondly, he uses this frozen moment in which we experience so many aspects of a patch of tall vegetation to emphasize the sense of (human) time.
Such perhaps unexpected intrusions of the human into wild, non-human nature leads directly to Jefferies's main point, that nature makes it possible for us to live by giving us hope. “My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that,” he explains, “ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become, as it were, interwoven into man's existence. He shall take from all their beauty and enjoy their glory.” According to him,
Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inscription speaking of hope. Consider the grasses and the oaks, the swallows, the sweet blue butterfly — they are one and all a sign and token showing before our eyes earth made into life. So that my hope becomes as broad as the horizon afar, reiterated by every leaf, sung on every bough, reflected in the gleam of every flower. There is so much for us yet to come, so much to be gathered, and enjoyed. Not for you and me, now, but for our race, who will ultimately use this magical secret for their happiness. Earth holds secrets enough to give them the life of the fabled Immortals.
We have begun with a patch of reeds and ended with “the fabled immortals.”
Jefferies, Richard. “The Pageant of Summer.” The Life of the Fields. Ed. Edward Thomas. London: Duckworth, 1909. 270-79. Project Gutenberg e-text [EBook #6164 produced by Malcolm Farmer].
Last modified 26 November 2010