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The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies
Walter Besant

The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies
Walter Besant

Walter Besant

The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies


In the body of this work I have sufficiently explained the reasons why I was entrusted with the task of writing this memoir of Richard Jefferies. I have only here to express my thanks, first to the publishers, who have given permission to quote from books by Jefferies issued by them, namely: Messrs. Cassell and Co., Messrs. Chapman and Hall, Messrs. Longman and Co., Messrs. Sampson Low and Co., Messrs. Smith and Elder, and Messrs. Tinsley Brothers, and next, to all those who have entrusted me with letters written by Jefferies, and have given permission to use them. These are: Mrs. Harrild, of Sydenham, Mr. Charles Longman, Mr. J.W. North, and Mr. C.P. Scott. I have also been provided with the note-books filled with Jefferies' notes made in the fields. These have enabled me to understand, and, I hope, to convey to others some understanding of, the writer's methods. I call this book the "Eulogy" of Richard Jefferies, because, in very truth, I can find nothing but admiration, pure and unalloyed, for that later work of his, on which will rest his fame and his abiding memory.


United University Club,

September, 1888.



"Go," said the Voice which dismisses the soul on its way to inhabit an earthly frame. "Go; thy lot shall be to speak of trees, from the cedar even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; and of beasts also, and of fowls, and of fishes. All thy ways shall be ordered for thee, so that thou shalt learn to speak of these things as no man ever spoke before. Thou shalt rise into great honour among men. Many shall love to hear thy voice above all the voices of those who speak. This is a great gift. Thou shalt also enjoy the tender love of wife and children. Yet the things which men most desire – riches, rank, independence, ease, health, and long life – these are denied to thee. Thou shalt be always poor; thou shalt live in humble places; the goad of necessity shall continually prick thee to work when thou wouldst meditate; to write when thou wouldst walk forth to observe. Thou shalt never be able to sit down to rest; thou shalt be afflicted with grievous plaguy diseases; and thou shalt die when little more than half the allotted life of man is past. Go, therefore. Be happy with what is given, and lament not over what is denied."

Richard Jefferies – christened John Richard, but he was always called by his second name – was born on November 6, 1848, at the farmhouse of Coate – you may pronounce it, if you please, in Wiltshire fashion – Caute. The house stands on the road from Swindon to Marlborough, about two miles and a half from the former place. It has now lost its old picturesqueness, because the great heavy thatch which formerly served for roof has been removed and replaced by slates. I know not whether any gain in comfort has been achieved by this change, but the effect to outward view has been to reduce what was once a beautiful old house to meanness.

It consists of two rooms on the ground-floor, four on the first floor, and two large garrets in the roof, one of which, as we shall see, has memorable associations. The keeping-room of the family is remarkable for its large square window, built out so as to afford a delightful retreat for reading or working in the summer, or whenever it is not too cold to sit away from the fireplace. The other room, called, I believe, the best parlour, is larger, but it lacks the square window. In the days when the Jefferies family lived here it seems to have been used as a kind of store-room or lumber-room. At the back of the house is a kitchen belonging to a much older house; it is a low room built solidly of stone with timber rafters.

Beside the kitchen is a large modern room, which was used in Richard's childhood as a chapel of ease, in which service was read every Sunday for the hamlet of Coate.

Between the house and the road is a small flower-garden; at the side of the house is a vegetable-garden, with two or three fruit-trees, and beyond this an orchard. On the other side of the house are the farm buildings. There seems to be little traffic up and down the road, and the hamlet consists of nothing more than half a dozen labourers' cottages.

"I remember," writes one who knew him in boyhood, "every little detail of the house and grounds, even to the delicious scent of the musk underneath the old bay window" – it still springs up afresh every summer between the cobble stones – "the 'grind-stone' apple, the splendid egg-plum which drooped over the roof, the little Siberian crabs, the damsons – I could plant each spot with its own particular tree – the drooping willow, the swing, the quaint little arbour, the fuchsia-bushes, the hedge walks, the little arched gate leading into the road, the delightful scent under the limes, the little bench by the ha-ha looking towards Swindon and the setting sun. I am actually crying over these delicious memories of my childhood; if ever I loved a spot of this earth, it was Coate House. The scent of the sweet-briar takes me there in a moment; the walnut-trees you recollect, and the old wooden pump, where the villagers came for water; the hazel copse that my uncle planted; the gateway that led to the reservoir; the sitting-room, with its delightful square window; the porch, where the swallows used to build year after year; and the kitchen, with its wide hearth and dark window."

In "Amaryllis at the Fair" the scene is laid at Coate Farm. But, indeed, as we shall see, Coate was never absent from Jefferies' mind for long.

Coate is not, I believe, a large farm. It had, however, been in the possession of the family for many generations. Once – twice – it passed out of their hands, and was afterwards recovered. It was finally lost about twelve years ago. To belong to an old English yeoman stock is, perhaps, good enough ancestry for anyone, though not, certainly, "showy." Richard Jefferies was a veritable son of the soil: not descended from those who have nothing to show but long centuries of servitude, but with a long line behind him of independent farmers occupying their own land. Field and forest lore were therefore his by right of inheritance.

As for the country round about Coate, I suppose there is no district in the world that has been more minutely examined, explored, and described. Jefferies knew every inch of ground, every tree, every hedge. The land which lies in a circle of ten miles' radius, the centre of which is Coate Farm-house, belongs to the writings of Jefferies. He lived elsewhere, but mostly he wrote of Coate. The "Gamekeeper at Home," the "Amateur Poacher," "Wild Life in a Southern County," "Round about a Great Estate," "Hodge and his Masters," are all written of this small bit of Wiltshire. Nay, in "Wood Magic," in "Amaryllis at the Fair," in "Green Ferne Farm," and in "Bevis," we are still either at Coate Farm itself or on the hills around.

It is a country of downs. Two of them, within sight of the farmhouse, are covered with the grassy mounds and trenches of ancient forts or "castles." There are plantations here and there, and coppices, but the general aspect of the country is treeless; it is also a dry country. In winter there are water-courses which in summer are dry; yet it is not without brooks. Jefferies shows ("Wild Life in a Southern County," p. 29) that in ancient and prehistoric time the whole country must have been covered with forests, of which the most important survival is what is now called Ashbourne Chase. For one who loved solitude and wanderings among the hills, there could be hardly any part of England more delightful. Within a reasonable walk from Coate are Barbury Hill, Liddington Hill, and Ashbourne Chase; there are downs extending as far as Marlborough, over which a man may walk all day long and meet no one. It is a country, moreover, full of ancient monuments; besides the strongholds of Liddington and Barbury, there are everywhere tumuli, barrows, cromlechs, and stone circles. Wayland Smith's Forge is within a walk to the east; another walk, somewhat longer, takes you to Avebury, to Wan's Dyke, to the Grey Wethers of Marlborough, or the ancient forest of Savernake. There are ancient memories or whispers of old wars and prehistoric battles about this country. At Barbury the Britons made a final stand against the Saxons, and were defeated with great slaughter. Wanborough, now a village, was then an important centre where four Roman roads met, so that the chieftain or king who had his seat at Wanborough could communicate rapidly, and call up forces from Sarum, Silchester, Winchester, and the Chilterns. All these things speak nothing to a boy who is careless and incurious. But Richard Jefferies was a boy curious and inquiring. He had, besides, friends who directed his attention to the meaning of the ancient monuments within his reach, and taught him something of the dim and shadowy history of the people who built them. He loved to talk and think of them; in after-years he wrote a book – "After London" – which was inspired by these early meditations upon prehistoric Britain. He himself discovered – it is an archæological find of very considerable importance – how the garrisons of these hill-top forts provided themselves with water. And as for his special study of creatures and their ways, the wildness of the country is highly favourable, both to their preservation and to opportunities for study. Perhaps no other part of England was better for the development of his genius than the Wiltshire Downs. Do you want to catch the feeling of the air upon these downs? Remember the words which begin "Wild Life in a Southern County."

"The most commanding down is crowned with the grassy mould and trenches of an ancient earthwork, from whence there is a noble view of hill and plain. The inner slope of the green fosse is inclined at an angle pleasant to recline on, with the head just below the edge, in the summer sunshine. A faint sound as of a sea heard in a dream – a sibilant 'sish, sish' – passes along outside, dying away and coming again as a fresh wave of the wind rushes through the bennets and the dry grass. There is the happy hum of bees – who love the hills – as they speed by laden with their golden harvest, a drowsy warmth, and the delicious odour of wild thyme. Behind the fosse sinks, and the rampart rises high and steep – two butterflies are wheeling in uncertain flight over the summit. It is only necessary to raise the head a little way, and the cool breeze refreshes the cheek – cool at this height while the plains beneath glow under the heat."

All day long the trains from Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and South Wales, from Exeter, Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, and Oxford, run into Swindon and stop there for ten minutes – every one of them – while the passengers get out and crowd into the refreshment rooms.

Swindon to all these travellers is nothing at all but a refreshment-room. It has no other association – nobody takes a ticket to Swindon any more than to Crewe – it is the station where people have ten minutes allowed for eating. As for any village, or town, of Swindon, nobody has ever inquired whether there be such a place. Swindon is a luncheon-bar; that is all. There is, however, more than a refreshment-room at Swindon. First, there has grown up around the station a new town of twenty thousand people, all employés of the Great Western Railway, all engaged upon the works of the company. This is not by any means a beautiful town, but it is not squalid; on the contrary, it is clean, and looks prosperous and contented, with fewer public-houses (but here one may be mistaken) than are generally found. It is an industrial city – a city of the employed – skilled artisans, skilled engineers, blacksmiths, foremen, and clerks. A mile south of this new town – but there are houses nearly all the way – the old Swindon stands upon a hill, occupying, most likely, the site of a British fortress, such as that of Liddington or Barbury. It is a market town of six or eight thousand people. Formerly there was a settlement of Dutch in the place connected with the wool trade. They have long since gone, but the houses which they built – picturesque old houses presenting two gables to the street – remained after them. Of these nearly all are now pulled down, so that there is little but red brick to look upon. In fact, it would be difficult to find a town more devoid of beauty. They have pulled down the old church, except the chancel: there was once an old mill – Jefferies' grandfather was the tenant. That is also pulled down, and there is a kind of square or place where there is the corn exchange: I think that there is nothing else to see.

On market-day, however, the town is full of crowd and bustle; at the Goddard Arms you can choose between a hot dinner upstairs and a cold lunch downstairs, and you will find both rooms filled with men who know each other and are interested in lambing and other bucolic matters. The streets are filled with drivers, sheep, and cattle; there is a horse market; in the corn market the farmers, slow of speech, carry their sample-bags in their hands; the carter, whip in hand, stands about on the kerbstone; but in spite of the commotion no one is in a hurry. It is the crowd alone which gives the feeling of busy life.

Looking from Swindon Hill, south and east and west, there stretches away the great expanse of downs which nobody ever seems to visit; the treasure-land of monuments built by a people passed away – not our ancestors at all. This is the country over which the feet of Richard Jefferies loved to roam, never weary of their wandering. On the slopes of these green hills he has measured the ramparts of the ancient fortress; lying on the turf, he has watched the hawk in the air; among these fields he has sat for hours motionless and patient, until the creatures thought him a statue and played their pranks before him without fear. In these hedges he has peered and searched and watched; in these woods and in these fields and on these hillsides he has seen in a single evening's walk more things of wonder and beauty than one of us poor purblind city creatures can discern in the whole of the six weeks which we yearly give up to Nature and to fresh air. This corner of England must be renamed. As Yorkshire hath its Craven, its Cleveland, its Richmond, and its Holderness, so Wiltshire shall have its Jefferies-land, lying in an irregular oval on whose circumference stand Swindon, Barbury, Liddington, Ashbourne Chase and Wanborough.

Richard Jefferies was the second of five children, three sons and two daughters. The eldest child, a daughter, was killed by a runaway horse at the age of five. The Swindon people, who are reported to be indifferent to the works of their native author, remember his family very well. They seem to have possessed qualities or eccentricities which cause them to be remembered. His grandfather, for instance, who is without doubt the model for old Iden in "Amaryllis," was at the same time a miller and a confectioner. The mill stood near the west end of the old church; both mill and church are now pulled down. It was worked for the tenant by his brother, a man still more eccentric than the miller. The family seems to have inherited, from father to son, a disposition of reserve, a love of solitude, and a habit of thinking for themselves. No gregarious man, no man who loved to sit among his fellows, could possibly have written even the shortest of Jefferies' papers.

The household at Coate has been partly – but only partly – described in "Amaryllis at the Fair." It consisted of his parents, himself, his next brother, a year younger than himself, and a brother and sister much younger. Farmer Iden, in "Amaryllis," is, in many characteristics, a portrait of his father. Truly, it is not a portrait to shame any man; and though the lines are strongly drawn, one hopes that the original, who is still living, was not offended at a picture so striking and so original. Jefferies has drawn for us the figure of a man full of wisdom and thought, who speaks now in broad Wiltshire and now in clear, good English; one who meditates aloud; one who roams about his fields watching and remembering; one who brings to the planting of potatoes as much thought and care as if he were writing an immortal poem; yet an unpractical and unsuccessful man, who goes steadily and surely down-hill while those who have not a tenth part of his wisdom and ability climb upwards. A novelist, however, draws his portraits as best suits his purpose; he arranges the lights to fall on this feature or on that; he conceals some things and exaggerates others, so that even with the picture of Farmer Iden before us, it would be rash to conclude that we know the elder Jefferies. Some of the pictures, however, must be surely drawn from the life. For instance, that of the farmer planting his potatoes:

"Under the wall was a large patch recently dug, beside the patch a grass path, and on the path a wheelbarrow. A man was busy putting in potatoes; he wore the raggedest coat ever seen on a respectable back. As the wind lifted the tails it was apparent that the lining was loose and only hung by threads, the cuffs were worn through, there was a hole beneath each arm, and on each shoulder the nap of the cloth was gone; the colour, which had once been gray, was now a mixture of several soils and numerous kinds of grit. The hat he had on was no better; it might have been made of some hard pasteboard, it was so bare.

"The way in which he was planting potatoes was wonderful; every potato was placed at exactly the right distance apart, and a hole made for it in the general trench; before it was set it was looked at and turned over, and the thumb rubbed against it to be sure that it was sound, and when finally put in, a little mould was delicately adjusted round to keep it in its right position till the whole row was buried. He carried the potatoes in his coat pocket – those, that is, for the row – and took them out one by one; had he been planting his own children he could not have been more careful. The science, the skill, and the experience brought to this potato-planting you would hardly credit; for all this care was founded upon observation, and arose from very large abilities on the part of the planter, though directed to so humble a purpose at that moment."

This book also contains certain references to past family history which show that there had been changes and chances with losses and gains. They may be guessed from the following:

"'The daffodil was your great-uncle's favourite flower.'

"'Richard?' asked Amaryllis.

"'Richard,' repeated Iden. And Amaryllis, noting how handsome her father's intellectual face looked, wandered in her mind from the flower as he talked, and marvelled how he could be so rough sometimes, and why he talked like the labourers, and wore a ragged coat – he who was so full of wisdom in his other moods, and spoke, and thought, and indeed acted as a perfect gentleman.

"'Richard's favourite flower,' he went on. 'He brought the daffodils down from Luckett's; every one in the garden came from there. He was always reading poetry, and writing, and sketching, and yet he was such a capital man of business; no one could understand that. He built the mill, and saved heaps of money; he bought back the old place at Luckett's, which belonged to us before Queen Elizabeth's days; indeed, he very nearly made up the fortunes Nicholas and the rest of them got rid of. He was, indeed, a man. And now it is all going again – faster than he made it.'"

Everybody knows the Dutch picture of the dinner at the farm – the description of the leg of mutton. Was ever leg of mutton thus glorified?

"That day they had a leg of mutton – a special occasion – a joint to be looked on reverently. Mr. Iden had walked into the town to choose it himself some days previously, and brought it home on foot in a flag basket. The butcher would have sent it, and if not, there were men on the farm who could have fetched it, but it was much too important to be left to a second person. No one could do it right but Mr. Iden himself. There was a good deal of reason in this personal care of the meat, for it is a certain fact that unless you do look after such things yourself, and that persistently, too, you never get it first-rate. For this cause people in grand villas scarcely ever have anything worth eating on their tables. Their household expenses reach thousands yearly, and yet they rarely have anything eatable, and their dinner-tables can never show meat, vegetables, or fruit equal to Mr. Iden's. The meat was dark-brown, as mutton should be, for if it is the least bit white it is sure to be poor; the grain was short, and ate like bread and butter, firm, and yet almost crumbling to the touch; it was full of juicy red gravy, and cut pleasantly, the knife went through it nicely; you can tell good meat directly you touch it with the knife. It was cooked to a turn, and had been done at a wood fire on a hearth; no oven taste, no taint of coal gas or carbon; the pure flame of wood had browned it. Such emanations as there may be from burning logs are odorous of the woodland, of the sunshine, of the fields and fresh air; the wood simply gives out as it burns the sweetness it has imbibed through its leaves from the atmosphere which floats above grass and flowers. Essences of this order, if they do penetrate the fibres of the meat, add to its flavour a delicate aroma. Grass-fed meat, cooked at a wood fire, for me."

After the dinner, the great strong man with the massive head, who can never make anything succeed, sits down to sleep alone beside the fire, his head leaning where for thirty years it had daily leaned, against the wainscot, so that there was now a round spot upon it, completely devoid of varnish.

"That panel was in effect a cross on which a heart had been tortured for the third of a century, that is, for the space of time allotted to a generation.

"That mark upon the panel had still a further meaning; it represented the unhappiness, the misfortunes, the Nemesis of two hundred years. This family of Idens had endured already two hundred years of unhappiness and discordance for no original fault of theirs, simply because they had once been fortunate of old time, and therefore they had to work out that hour of sunshine to the utmost depths of shadow.

"The panel of the wainscot upon which that mark had been worn was in effect a cross upon which a human heart had been tortured – and thought can, indeed, torture – for a third of a century. For Iden had learned to know himself, and despaired."

Then the man falls asleep, and Amaryllis steals in on tiptoe to find a book. Then the wife, with a shawl round her shoulders, creeps outside the house and looks in at the window – angry with her unpractical husband.

"Slight sounds, faint rustlings, began to be audible among the cinders in the fender. The dry cinders were pushed about by something passing between them. After a while a brown mouse peered out at the end of the fender under Iden's chair, looked round a moment, and went back to the grate. In a minute he came again, and ventured somewhat farther across the width of the white hearthstone to the verge of the carpet. This advance was made step by step, but on reaching the carpet the mouse rushed home to cover in one run – like children at 'touch wood,' going out from a place of safety very cautiously, returning swiftly. The next time another mouse followed, and a third appeared at the other end of the fender. By degrees they got under the table, and helped themselves to the crumbs; one mounted a chair and reached the cloth, but soon descended, afraid to stay there. Five or six mice were now busy at their dinner.

"The sleeping man was as still and quiet as if carved.

"A mouse came to the foot, clad in a great rusty-hued iron-shod boot – the foot that rested on the fender, for he had crossed his knees. His ragged and dingy trouser, full of March dust, and earth-stained by labour, was drawn up somewhat higher than the boot. It took the mouse several trials to reach the trouser, but he succeeded, and audaciously mounted to Iden's knee. Another quickly followed, and there the pair of them feasted on the crumbs of bread and cheese caught in the folds of his trousers.

"One great brown hand was in his pocket, close to them – a mighty hand, beside which they were pigmies indeed in the land of the giants. What would have been the value of their lives between a finger and thumb that could crack a ripe and strong-shelled walnut?

"The size – the mass – the weight of his hand alone was as a hill overshadowing them; his broad frame like the Alps; his head high above as a vast rock that overhung the valley.

"His thumb-nail – widened by labour with spade and axe – his thumb-nail would have covered either of the tiny creatures as his shield covered Ajax.

"Yet the little things fed in perfect confidence. He was so still, so very still – quiescent – they feared him no more than they did the wall; they could not hear his breathing.

"Had they been gifted with human intelligence, that very fact would have excited their suspicions. Why so very, very still? Strong men, wearied by work, do not sleep quietly; they breathe heavily. Even in firm sleep we move a little now and then, a limb trembles, a muscle quivers, or stretches itself.

"But Iden was so still it was evident he was really wide awake and restraining his breath, and exercising conscious command over his muscles, that this scene might proceed undisturbed.
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