1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Jefferies, Richard

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

JEFFERIES, RICHARD (1848-1887), English naturalist and author, was born on the 6th of November 1848, at the farmhouse of Coate about 2½ m. from Swindon, on the toad to Marlborough. He was sent to school, first at Sydenham and then at Swindon, till the age of fifteen or so, but his actual education was at the hands of his father, who gave him his love for Nature and taught him how to observe. For the faculty of observation, as Jefferies, Gilbert White, and H. D. Thoreau have remarked, several gifts are necessary, including the possession of long sight and quick sight, two things which do not always go together. To them must be joined trained sight and the knowledge of what to expect. The boy's father first showed him what there was to look for in the hedge, in the field, in the trees, and in the sky. This kind of training would in many cases be wasted: to one who can understand it, the book of Nature will by-and-by offer pages which are blurred and illegible to the city-bred lad, and even to the country lad the power of reading them must be maintained by constant practice. To live amid streets or in the working world destroys it. The observer must live alone and always in the country; he must not worry himself about the ways of the world; he must be always, from day to day, watching the infinite changes and variations of Nature. Perhaps, even when the observer can actually read this book of Nature, his power of articulate speech may prove inadequate for the expression of what he sees. But Jefferies, as a boy, was more than an observer of the fields; he was bookish, and read all the books that he could borrow or buy. And presently, as is apt to be the fate of a bookish boy who cannot enter a learned profession, he became a journalist and obtained a post on the local paper. He developed literary ambitions, but for a long time to come was as one beating the air. He tried local history and novels; but his early novels, which were published at his own risk and expense, were, deservedly, failures. In 1872, however, he published a remarkable letter in The Times, on “The Wiltshire Labourer,” full of original ideas and of facts new to most readers. This was in reality the turning-point in his career. In 1873, after more false starts, Jefferies returned to his true field of work, the life of the country, and began to write for Fraser's Magazine on “Farming and Farmers.” He had now found himself. The rest of his history is that of continual advance, from close observation becoming daily more and more close, to that intimate communion with Nature with which his later pages are filled. The developments of the later period are throughout touched with the melancholy that belongs to ill-health. For, though in his prose poem called “The Pageant of Summer” the writer seems absolutely revelling in the strength of manhood that belongs to that pageant, yet, in the Story of My Heart, written about the same time, we detect the mind that is continually turned to death. He died at Goring, worn out with many ailments, on the 14th of August 1887. The best-known books of Richard Jefferies are: The Gamekeeper at Home (1878); The Story of My Heart (1883); Life of the Fields (1884), containing the best paper he ever wrote, “The Pageant of Summer”; Amaryllis at the Fair (1884), in which may be found the portraits of his own people; and The Open Air. He stands among the scanty company of men who address a small audience, for whom he read aloud these pages of Nature spoken of above, which only he, and the few like unto him, can decipher.

See Sir Walter Besant, Eulogy of Richard Jefferies (1888); H. S. Salt, Richard Jefferies: a Study (1894); Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies, his Life and Work (1909). (W. Be.)