Jones Very (1813-1880)

Jones Very. From Poems and Essays by Jones Very (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886).


One of the most remarkable of the protégés of Emerson who contributed to the pages of “The Dial” was Jones Very. In a notice of Very’s poems from Emerson’s pen, published in the first number of the second volume of “The Dial,” he says “they are as sincere a litany as the Hebrew songs of David or Isaiah,” and that “they have the sublime unity of the Decalogue or the Code of Menu, and if all monotonous, yet are they almost as pure as the sounds of surrounding Nature!” To this notice was added Very’s sonnet on “The Barberry Bush;” and in the first number of the third volume appeared a poem called “The Evening Choir,” and a sonnet entitled “The World.” The poem does not appear in either of the volumes of Very’s writings edited by his friends since his death.

Jones Very was born in Salem, August 28, 1813, the son of a sea-captain of the same name. He graduated from Harvard in 1886, became at once a tutor of Greek in the College, and a student in the Divinity School He was eminently successful as a teacher, gaining the affection and confidence of his pupils, and inspiring them with interest and even zeal with regard to the subject he taught. He has been described by a person who profited by his instruction as”one who fairly breathed the spirit of the Greek language and its literature, surrounding the study with a charm which vanished from Harvard with him.” In 1843 Very was licensed to preach by the Cambridge association of Unitarian ministers, but he was never settled over a parish. He preached occasionally, and by those who valued the most spiritual statement of religion he was gladly heard.

Writing to Rufus W. Griswold, September 25, 1841, Emerson said of this mystic poet: “Jones Very is a native of Salem, the son of a sea-captain who made many voyages to the north of Europe, in two of which he was accompanied by his son. After his father’s death, he prepared himself for college, and entered Harvard University in 1832, was graduated in 1836, and was appointed Greek tutor in the College in the same year. Whilst he held this office, a religious enthusiasm took possession of his mind, which gradually produced so great a change in him that his friends withdrew him from Cambridge and placed him for a short time in the McLean Asylum at Charlestown. His residence there produced little or no alteration, and he soon went to Salem, where he wrote most of the poems in the little volume. He is now in a state of somewhat firmer health, I believe, but rarely writes any verses. In ‘The Dial’ you will find a brief notice of his ‘Poems,’ written by me, to which I know not that I can add anything excepting the few dates above written.”

The reference here is to a volume of” Essays and Poems,” by Very, which Emerson edited and published, in 1839. This included a number of his sonnets and lyrics, preceded by three essays written or revised by him while he was at the sanitarium, the subjects being “Epic Poetry,” “Shakespeare,” and “Hamlet.” In 1883, after the death of Very, a selection from his poems was edited by William P. Andrews, with a brief memoir. This volume included only his religious poems, and so arranged as to indicate the several stages in his religious development. In 1886 James Freeman Clarke edited a complete revised edition of Very’s poems and essays, with a’ preface by Cyrus A. Bartol, and a very brief “biographical sketch” by Dr. Clarke.

During his tutorship at Harvard, Very entered upon a period of cerebral excitement approaching monomania, which gradually subsided. but the effects of which he never outgrew. At no time did he approach a condition of acute mania, but for some years he was in a state of abnormal religious exaltation, which bad so little of insanity in it that those who knew him most intimately regarded him as the one person of their acquaintance who consistently accepted the truths of Christianity. “Men in general,” was the interpretation of Dr. Channing, “have lost or never found this higher mind; their insanity is profound, Mr. Very’s is only superficial. To hear him talk was like looking into the purely spiritual world, into truth itself. He bad nothing of self-exaggeration, but seemed to have attained self-annihilation and become an oracle of God.” Emerson spoke of him as “profoundly sane,” and “wished the whole world were as mad as he.” Dr. Clarke said that Very’s “was a case of mono-saoia, rather than mono-mania,” and he gave an interesting account of the religious beliefs of the poet: “Mr. Very’s views in regard to religion were not different from those heretofore advocated by many pure and earnestly religious persons. He maintains, as did Fénelon, Madame Guion, and others, that all sin consists in self-will, all holiness in unconditional surrender of our own will to the will of God. He believes that one whose object is, not to do his own will in anything, but constantly to obey God, is led by him, and taught of him in all things. He is a son of God as Christ was The Son, because he always did the things which pleased his Father.”

Jones Very accepted the cardinal teaching of transcendentalism with an unflinching faith. It was not· a theory with him that man is in immediate contact with God, and may know of his will at all times. What he did and what he said, he felt that he was directed to do and to say by the Infinite Power. In fact, he claimed that he acted not of his own will, but always as he was directed. This theory he accepted with the utmost literalness, so that he said to Dr. Channing that even the putting his hand upon a mantel in the room where they were was not of his own free-will He wrote his poems and his prose essays as they were given to him. and he regarded himself as only the messenger or spokesman of the Spirit. His sonnets on religious themes. especially, he regarded as containing a message that was “given him” by the Spirit. He had an absolute confidence in the word that was thus spoken through him, and he gave it to others as something that had authority behind it, not as his own. He wrote to Emerson: “I am glad at last to be able to transmit what had been told me of Shakespeare. You hear not mine own words. but the teachings of the Holy Ghost.”

That he was an organ of the Spirit had become with Very a “fixed idea,” but his cerebral excitement had no other effect upon him than to make him remarkably spiritually minded. so that he lived constantly in the realm. of religious faith. Very was present at a conversation given by Alcott in Lynn during January, 1839, and what the latter then wrote of him shows his mental condition: “He is a remarkable phenomenon. His look, tones, words, are all sepulchral. He is a voice from the tombs. He speaks of having once lived in the world amongst men and things, but of being now in the spirit; time and space are not, save in the memory. This idea modifies all his thoughts and expressions. and the thoughts and expressions of others also. It is difficult for those who do not apprehend the state of his soul to converse with him. I find it quite possible, by translating his thoughts into my own vocabulary, mentally. By so doing, we talk with ease, and understand each other. His speech is Oriental. He is a psychological phenomenon of rare occurrence. He lives out of his organs; he is dead. Each thought of his soul. when spoken, each act of the body, implies a resurrection of the spiritual life.” Alcott seems to have accepted Very’s own belief that he had passed the resurrection, and no longer lived as a denizen of the physical world. Very spoke of his former life, and of his having arisen and become a supernatural being. To the more ardent transcendentalists this seemed natural and true, and they were ready to accept Very’s mental attitude as due to spiritual perfection, and not to an abnormal condition of the brain.

Much of Very’s poetry is dull enough, and not much of it rises above mediocrity; but a score or two of his sonnets and lyrics, written during his period of greatest cerebral excitement, have not been surpassed in this country. He had a remarkable mastery of the sonnet form, and there is a true lyric power in a few of his poems in that kind. Hawthorne quoted some of his earlier work in his “Virtuoso’s Collection” as that of  “a poet whose voice is scarcely heard among us as yet by reason of its depths.” Emerson wrote of his earliest collection of poems as “bearing the unquestionable stamp of grandeur.” Richard H. Dana wrote of the “extraordinary grace and originality” of Very’s poems, and he called them “among the finest in the language.” George William Curtis said that these poems were “gems of the purest ray serene,” and characterized them as “a soul’s history written with a pen of light.”

The poetry of Jones Very was very narrow in range, his subjects were not many, and he could use but a few poetical forms. He was not much concerned about poetry as such, and it was only as the vehicle of the Spirit that it had significance for him. “I value these verses,” he said, “not because they are mine, but because they are not.” He wrote what “came” to him, but he had no “leading,” as he said, to print what he had written. This was why Emerson edited the first volume of his to secure publication, and why no other collection of his poems was made until after his death. It was his lively interest in Very that led Emerson to prepare this earliest volume. Miss Peabody was then living in Salem and greatly interested in Very. She sent his poems to Emerson from time to time, and she persuaded Emerson to secure Very an opportunity to lecture in Concord. Writing to her after he had met and heard Very, Emerson said: “I write to thank your sagacity that detects such wise men as Mr. Very, from whose conversation and lecture I have bad a true and high satisfaction. I heartily congratulate myself on being, as it were, anew in such company.” Writing to Very of his poetry, Emerson said: “Do not, I beg of you, let a whisper or a sigh of the Muse go unattended to or unrecorded.” Once when Very went from his house, Emerson wrote: “In dismissing him I seem to have discharged an arrow into the heart of Society. Wherever that young enthusiast goes he will astonish and disconcert men by dividing for them the cloud that covers the gulf in man.”

After his retirement from his tutorship at Harvard Very spent his whole life in Salem, living there with two sisters in the house inherited from his father. He spent his mornings in his study, devoting much time to reading; his afternoons were usually given to walking far and wide about Salem, and during these usually solitary excursions his poems were composed, being written down on his return to his room. He led a quiet, retired, and studious life. His poems were occasionally printed in the local journals, and in the Unitarian periodicals. He died in the house where he had lived, May 8, 1880.

—George Willis Cooke, A Historical
and Biographical Introduction to the Dial
(Cleveland: Rowfant Club, 1902) v. 2, pp. 137-142

Selected Poems