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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

If it has not already dwindled


(or as his full name ran), John Richard Jefferies, occupies, though an infinitely smaller and a considerably lower place than Mr. Ruskin's, yet one almost as distinctly isolated in a particular department of aesthetic description. The son of a farmer at Coate, in North Wiltshire, and born in November 1848, he began journalism at eighteen, and was a contributor to the _North Wilts Herald_ till he was nearly thirty. Then he went to London, and in 1878 published some sketches (previously contributed to the _Pall Mall Gazette_) under the title of _The Game-Keeper at Home_. These, though not much bought, were very much admired; and Jefferies was encouraged to devote himself to work of the same kind, which he varied with curious and not very vigorous semi-philosophic speculations and attempts at downright novels (a kind which he had also tried in his youth). Unfortunately the peculiar sort of descriptive writing in which he excelled was not very widely called for, could hardly under the most favourable circumstances have brought in any great sums of money, and was peculiarly liable to depreciate when written to order. It does not appear that Jefferies had the rare though sometimes recorded power of accommodating himself to ordinary newspaper hack-work, while reserving himself for better things now and then; and finally, he had not been long in London before painful and ultimately fatal disease added to his troubles. He died in August 1887, being not yet forty. A burst of popularity
followed; his books, _The Game-Keeper at Home_, _Wild Life in a Southern Country_, _The Amateur Poacher_, _Round about a Great Estate_, etc., none of which had been printed in large numbers, were sold at four or five times their published price; and, worst of all, cheap imitations of his style began to flood the newspapers. Nay, the yet later results of this imitation was that another reaction set in, and even Jefferies' own work was once more pooh-poohed.

The neglect, the over-valuation, and the shift back to injustice, were all examples of the evils which beset literature at the present time, and which the much-blamed critic is almost powerless to cause or cure. In other days Jefferies was quite as likely to have been insufficiently rewarded at first by the public; but he would then have had no temptation to over-write himself, or try alien tasks, and he would have stood a very good chance of a pension, or a sinecure, or an easy office in church or state, on one or other of which he might have lived at ease and written at leisure. Nothing else could really have been of service to him, for his talent, though rare and exquisite, was neither rich nor versatile. It consisted in a power of observing nature more than Wordsworthian in delicacy, and almost Wordsworthian in the presence of a sentimental philosophic background of thought. Unluckily for Jefferies, his philosophic background was not like Wordsworth's, clear and cheerful, but wholly vague and partly gloomy. Writing, too, in prose not verse, and after Mr. Ruskin, he attempted an exceedingly florid style, which at its happiest was happy enough, but which was not always at that point, and which when it was not was apt to become trivial or tawdry, or both. It is therefore certain that his importance for posterity will dwindle, if it has not already dwindled, to that given by a bundle of descriptive selections. But these will occupy a foremost place on their particular shelf, the shelf at the head of which stand Gilbert White and Gray.

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