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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Richard Jefferies (1848–1887)

AN ENGLISH essayist of unusual quality was Richard Jefferies, whose birthplace was near the Wiltshire village of Swindon. There, November 6th, 1848, the son of a farmer, he began the life that was to end untimely before he had come to the age of forty. His baptismal name was John Richard. Self-educated by sheer will-power, struggling up out of untoward humble circumstances, Jefferies offers an example of one of the finest spectacles earth affords: personal merit winning its way against odds.

He wrote early for local newspapers, and contributed tentatively to Fraser’s Magazine. In 1877, still under thirty, he settled at Surbiton near London, in order to take up the literary career for better or worse. He wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette, Longmans’ Magazine, and like periodicals; his essays attracting attention by their individual note, fresh spirit, accurate descriptions, and loving feeling for nature.

Although dying comparatively young,—August 14th, 1887, at Goring in Sussex,—Jefferies was a voluminous writer, his list of published works numbering twenty-four. Of these, characteristic early works were—‘The Gamekeeper at Home: or, Sketches from Natural History and Rural Life’ (1878); ‘The Amateur Poacher’ (1879); ‘Hodge and His Masters’ (1880); and ‘Round About a Great Estate’ (1880). A number of novels also date from this period; and while Jefferies was deficient in construction and action, and not properly a maker of fiction, his fine descriptive powers and strong thought give even his stories a certain value. But it is in the essay devoted to the study and praise of nature that he becomes a master. When he began to write of British scenery, of the birds, flowers, and trees of his own region, he produced work that won him a unique position among modern English essayists. Volumes like ‘Life of the Fields’ (1884), the wonderful autobiographical sketch ‘Story of My Heart’ (1883), and the posthumous collection of papers published by his widow under the title ‘Field and Hedgerow,’ illustrate phases of this activity.

During the six final years of his life Jefferies was an invalid, and spent his time in country villages in the quest of health; yet some of the most suggestive and beautiful of his essays were written under these conditions, the poetic and mystic in him coming out strong towards the last, and lending a sort of magic to his pen.

Like the American John Burroughs, Jefferies unites knowledge and love of his chief subject with the power of popular literary presentation. Technicalities are forgotten in the infectious glow of his enthusiasm. The two writers are not unlike, also, in their philosophy, which interprets Nature without discovering in her the conventional religious symbols. But Jefferies is more the prose poet, and has an idealistic element which gives a peculiar charm to his essays. The exquisite passage which follows, from ‘The Story of My Heart,’ is as good an illustration of this mystic quality as the whole body of his writings affords. Seldom has a more remarkable confession of spiritual travail been written down. The ‘Story’ is so candid, so intimate, yet so delicate; and it is all true, “absolutely and unflinchingly true,” as he says. One hardly knows at first whether it be a real experience or a literary tour de force,—until more knowledge of Jefferies, of his honesty and unconventionality, stamps the book as naïvely genuine. The poetry of it will be felt by any one sensitive to beautiful words that carry beautiful thoughts. An example is also given of his earlier, more objective and practical mood and manner.