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

Hill Visions

By Richard Jefferies (1848–1887)

From ‘The Story of My Heart’

THE STORY of my heart commences seventeen years ago. In the glow of youth there were times every now and then when I felt the necessity of a strong inspiration of soul-thought. My heart was dusty, parched for the want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind arid and dry,—for there is a dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge. It is injurious to the mind as well as to the body to be always in one place, and always surrounded by the same circumstances. A species of thick clothing slowly grows about the mind; the pores are choked, little habits become a part of existence, and by degrees the mind is inclosed in a husk. When this began to form, I felt eager to escape from it, to throw it off like heavy clothing, to drink deeply once more at the fresh fountain of life. An inspiration—a long deep breath of the pure air of thought—could alone give health to the heart.

There was a hill to which I used to resort at such periods. The labor of walking three miles to it, all the while gradually ascending, seemed to clear my blood of the heaviness accumulated at home. On a warm summer day the slow continued rise required continued effort, which carried away the sense of oppression. The familiar every-day scene was soon out of sight; I came to other trees, meadows, and fields; I began to breathe a new air and to have a fresher aspiration. I restrained my soul till I reached the sward of the hill; psyche, the soul that longed to be loose,—I would write psyche always instead of soul, to avoid meanings which have become attached to the word “soul,” but it is awkward to do so. Clumsy indeed are all words the moment the wooden stage of commonplace life is left. I restrained psyche, my soul, till I reached and put my foot on the grass at the beginning of the green hill itself.

Moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here. By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence. I felt myself, myself. There was an intrenchment on the summit, and going down into the fosse I walked round it slowly to recover breath. On the southwestern side there was a spot where the outer bank had partially slipped, leaving a gap. There the view was over a broad plain, beautiful with wheat and inclosed by a perfect amphitheatre of green hills. Through these hills there was one narrow groove or pass southwards, where the white clouds seemed to close in the horizon. Woods hid the scattered hamlets and farm-houses, so that I was quite alone.

I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight. I thought of the earth’s firmness—I felt it bear me up; through the grassy couch there came an influence as if I could feel the great earth speaking to me. I thought of the wandering air—its pureness, which is its beauty: the air touched me and gave me something of itself. I spoke to the sea;—though so far, in my mind I saw it green at the rim of the earth and blue in deeper ocean;—I desired to have its strength, its mystery and glory. Then I addressed the sun, desiring the soul-equivalent of his light and brilliance, his endurance and unwearied race. I turned to the blue heaven over, gazing into its depth, inhaling its exquisite color and sweetness. The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky drew my soul toward it, and there it rested; for pure color is rest of heart. By all these I prayed: I felt an emotion of the soul beyond all definition; prayer is a puny thing to it, and the word is a rude sign to the feeling, but I know no other. By the blue heaven, by the rolling sun bursting through untrodden space, a new ocean of ether is every day unveiled. By the fresh and wandering air encompassing the world; by the sea sounding on the shore—the green sea white-flecked at the margin, and the deep ocean; by the strong earth under me. Then returning, I prayed by the sweet thyme, whose little flowers I touched with my hand; by the slender grass; by the crumble of dry, chalky earth I took up and let fall through my fingers. Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower; breathing the earth-encircling air; thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, prone on the sward in token of deep reverence,—thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than Deity.

With all the intensity of feeling which exalted me, all the intense communion I held with the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean—in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written. With these I prayed as if they were the keys of an instrument, of an organ, with which I swelled forth the notes of my soul, redoubling my own voice by their power. The great sun burning with light; the strong earth, dear earth; the warm sky; the pure air; the thought of ocean,—the inexpressible beauty of all filled me with a rapture, an ecstasy, an inflatus. With this inflatus, too, I prayed. Next to myself I came and recalled myself, my bodily existence. I held out my hand; the sunlight gleamed on the skin and the iridescent nails; I recalled the mystery and beauty of the flesh. I thought of the mind with which I could see the ocean sixty miles distant, and gather to myself its glory. I thought of my inner existence, that consciousness which is called the soul. These—that is, myself—I threw in the balance to weigh the prayer the heavier. My strength of body, mind, and soul I flung into it; I put forth my strength; I wrestled and labored and toiled in might of prayer. The prayer, this soul-emotion, was in itself; not for an object—it was a passion. I hid my face in the grass; I was wholly prostrated; I lost myself in the wrestle; I was rapt and carried away.

Becoming calmer, I returned to myself and thought, reclining in rapt thought, full of aspiration, steeped to the lips of my soul in desire. I did not then define or analyze or understand this. I see now that what I labored for was soul-life, more soul-nature, to be exalted, to be full of soul-learning. Finally I rose, walked half a mile or so along the summit of the hill eastwards, to soothe myself and come to the common ways of life again. Had any shepherd accidentally seen me lying on the turf, he would only have thought that I was resting a few minutes; I made no outward show. Who could have imagined the whirlwind of passion that was going on within me as I reclined there! I was greatly exhausted when I reached home. Occasionally I went upon the hill, deliberately deeming it good to do so; then again, this craving carried me away up there of itself. Though the principal feeling was the same, there were variations in the mode in which it affected me.

Sometimes on lying down on the sward, I first looked up at the sky, gazing for a long time till I could see deep into the azure and my eyes were full of the color; then I turned my face to the grass and thyme, placing my hands at each side of my face so as to shut out everything and hide myself. Having drunk deeply of the heaven above, and felt the most glorious beauty of the day, and remembering the old, old sea, which (as it seemed to me) was but just yonder at the edge, I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe. I felt down deep into the earth under, and high above into the sky, and farther still to the sun and stars, still farther beyond the stars into the hollow of space; and losing thus my separateness of being, came to seem like a part of the whole. Then I whispered to the earth beneath, through the grass and thyme down into the depth of its ear, and again up to the starry space hid behind the blue of day. Traveling in an instant across the distant sea, I saw, as if with actual vision, the palms and cocoanut-trees, the bamboos of India, and the cedars of the extreme south. Like a lake with islands the ocean lay before me, as clear and vivid as the plain beneath in the midst of the amphitheatre of hills.

With the glory of the great sea, I said; with the firm, solid, and sustaining earth; the depth, distance, and expanse of ether; the age, tamelessness, and ceaseless motion of the ocean; the stars, and the unknown in space; by all those things which are most powerful, known to me, and by those which exist but of which I have no idea whatever, I pray. Further, by my own soul, that secret existence which above all other things bears the nearest resemblance to the ideal of spirit infinitely nearer than earth, sun, or star. Speaking by an inclination towards, not in words, my soul prays that I may have something from each of these; that I may gather a flower from them, that I may have in myself the secret and meaning of the earth, the golden sun, the light, the foam-flecked sea. Let my soul become enlarged; I am not enough; I am little and contemptible. I desire a greatness of soul, an irradiance of mind, a deeper insight, a broader hope. Give me power of soul so that I may actually effect by its will that which I strive for.

In winter, though I could not then rest on the grass, or stay long enough to form any definite expression, I still went up to the hill once, now and then, for it seemed that to merely visit the spot repeated all that I had previously said. But it was not only then.

In summer I went out into the fields, and let my soul inspire these thoughts under the trees, standing against the trunk or looking up through the branches at the sky. If trees could speak, hundreds of them would say that I had these soul-emotions under them. Leaning against the oak’s massive trunk, and feeling the rough bark and the lichen at my back, looking southwards over the grassy fields, cowslip-yellow, at the woods on the slope, I thought my desire of deeper soul-life. Or under the green firs, looking upwards, the sky was more deeply blue at their tops; then the brake-fern was unrolling, the doves cooing, the thickets astir, the late ash leaves coming forth. Under the shapely, rounded elms, by the hawthorn bushes and hazel, everywhere the same deep desire for the soul-nature; to have from all green things and from the sunlight the inner meaning which was not known to them,—that I might be full of light as the woods of the sun’s rays. Just to touch the lichened bark of a tree, or the end of a spray projecting over the path as I walked, seemed to repeat the same prayer in me.

The long-lived summer days dried and warmed the turf in the meadows. I used to lie down in solitary corners at full length on my back, so as to feel the embrace of the earth. The grass stood high above me, and the shadows of the tree branches danced on my face. I looked up at the sky with half-closed eyes, to bear the dazzling light. Bees buzzed over me, sometimes a butterfly passed, there was a hum in the air, green-finches sang in the hedge. Gradually entering into the intense life of the summer’s days,—a life which burned around as if every grass-blade and leaf were a torch,—I came to feel the long-drawn life of the earth back into the dimmest past, while the sun of the moment was warm on me. Sesostris on the most ancient sands of the south, in ancient, ancient days, was conscious of himself and of the sun. This sunlight linked me through the ages to that past consciousness. From all the ages my soul desired to take that soul-life which had flowed through them, as the sunbeams had continually poured on earth. As the hot sands take up the heat, so would I take up that soul-energy. Dreamy in appearance, I was breathing full of existence; I was aware of the grass-blades, the flowers, the leaves on hawthorn and tree. I seemed to live more largely through them, as if each were a pore through which I drank. The grasshoppers called and leaped, the green-finches sang, the blackbirds happily fluted, all the air hummed with life. I was plunged deep in existence, and with all that existence I prayed.

Through every grass-blade in the thousand thousand grasses; through the million leaves, veined and edge-cut, on bush and tree; through the song-notes and the marked feathers of the bird, through the insects’ hum and the color of the butterfly; through the soft warm air and the flecks of clouds dissolving,—I used them all for prayer with all the energy the sunbeams had poured unwearied on the earth since Sesostris was conscious of them on the ancient sands; with all the life that had been lived by vigorous man and beauteous woman since first in dearest Greece the dream of the gods was woven; with all the soul-life that had flowed a long stream down to me,—I prayed that I might have a soul more than equal to, far beyond my conception of, these things of the past, the present and the fullness of all life; not only equal to these, but beyond, higher, and more powerful than I could imagine; that I might take from all their energy, grandeur, and beauty, and gather it into me; that my soul might be more than the cosmos of life.

I prayed with the glowing clouds of sunset, and the soft light of the first star coming through the violet sky. At night, with the stars according to the season: now with the Pleiades, now with the Swan, or burning Sirius, and broad Orion’s whole constellation, red Aldebaran, Arcturus, and the Northern Crown; with the morning star, the light-bringer, once now and then when I saw it, a white-gold ball in the violet-purple sky, or framed about with pale summer vapor, floating away as red streaks shot horizontally in the east. A diffused saffron ascended into the luminous upper azure. The disk of the sun rose over the hill; fluctuating with throbs of light, his chest heaved in fervor of brilliance. All the glory of the sunrise filled me with broader and furnace-like vehemence of prayer that I might have the deepest of soul-life, the deepest of all, deeper far than all this greatness of the visible universe and even of the invisible; that I might have a fullness of soul till now unknown, and utterly beyond my own conception.

In the deepest darkness of the night, the same thought rose in my mind as in the bright light of noontide. What is there which I have not used to strengthen the same emotion?