Monday, February 20, 2023

Charles Masterman on Richard Jefferies and nature

 The Condition of England, which was published in 1909, is probably Charles Masterman's best-known book.

It is best known for its analysis of the different social classes, but also contains a chapter on literature and progress. And in it, Masterman discusses the thought of Richard Jefferies in some detail.

I quote some of it here because Masterman's account of Jefferies is accurate and illuminating:

There is more hope in the way of the Life Worshippers like Jefferies than of the Nature Worshippers like Wordsworth. Wordsworth assumes a Nature benignant and responsive, a spirit whose dwelling is the light of setting suns and in the mind of man. The result is a kind of refined and sometimes too rarefied Pantheism, which is compelled often to shut its eyes to the Nature which is 'red in tooth and claw,' and equally bestows increase and destruction. 

Jefferies wove from his dawns and sunsets no roseate scheme of natural religion. He acknowledged the "blunt cruelty" of natural things. He always confessed no intelligence in human affairs: outside, a Nature not so much hostile as utterly indifferent to all the ardours of mankind. 'The sea, the earth, the sun, the trees, the hills, care nothing for human life.' 

He had no specific "humanitarian" teaching, and in early days delighted in the work of devastation and of slaughter. He was bored by the claims of science, and thought nothing of the jargon of 'Evolution.' The strength of his position rests in his association of these realities with the overmastering "passion of life." ...

He did not find a Presence which disturbed with the joy of elevating thoughts. He found a Glamour - inimitable, inexplicable - which excited to passionate emotion. Others have demanded Order, Understanding, evidence of Purpose or Compassion. He asked only for Beauty. And that Beauty is not denied to the supplicant.

The Seasons pass in their procession; Birth and Death weave their webs of being ; men are seeking, and in vain, for sympathy and pity behind the veil of visible things. Enough for him that here the sunlight flickering on the stems of old trees, the sap creeping up through a million tiny stems, the changes of expanding petals and of withered autumn leaves, can reveal a magic and a mystery which time shall never dim nor age destroy. 

Most writers who bring together politics and the natural world search the latter for lessons about how the former should be conducted. 

But in his Wood Magic, Jefferies uses the amorality of human politics as a metaphor to help us understand the war of all against all that is the natural world. Despite what Masterman says about Jefferies' impatience with the 'jargon' of evolution, he had clearly absorbed the lessons of Darwin's work or come to the same conclusions from his own observations of nature.

In The Condition of England, Masterman concludes his discussion of Jefferies with:

This unquestioning love of the Earth and the children of it is perhaps the most hopeful element for future progress. In a century of doubts and scepticisms it may serve to bridge the gulf between the old and the new. 

Whilst men are still confused concerning the purposes of Nature, and still doubtful concerning any definite or intelligent progress towards a final end, it is much that inspiration and contentment can be found in its present beauty and appeal. 

The "glory of the sum of things " may thus come to be interpreted in some particular sense-given experience, untroubled - in that present - by inquiry concerning a past that is dead or a future that is not yet born.

Except that today we are painfully aware of our own impact upon the natural world and that 'present beauty' is not guaranteed an extended future.

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