by Bryan Hileman
Prophet, poet and madman, Jones Very was, to say the very least, unique among the men of his time. His childhood was unconventional, his college career exemplary, and his religious enthusiasm literate and profound. He in essence went where others feared to tread.
Jones Very was born in 1813 in Salem, Massachusetts to Captain Jones Very and his first cousin Lydia Very. They never married. His father spent a great deal of time at sea, therefore seeing little of his family. His only real contact with his father was a sea voyage lasting two years undertaken when the boy was nine. During this voyage they visited Kronborg Castle, the home of Hamlet, forming an association which was to haunt and inspire young Very in the years to come.
Lydia Very cursed her hard lot in life with an extreme and vehement passion. She loved her children with a smothering love even as she despised her neighbors and their religion, often to the point of near-hysteria. Jones thus grew up shy and reserved, and on the outskirts of village life.
Jones Very was a precocious young man whose gifts and devotion to his studies enabled him to enter Harvard in 1833 despite his poverty. He was 20 years of age when he entered as a sophomore, 3 years older than most of his classmates. He was intense and somewhat socially awkward. The few friendships he formed tended to be with his professors.
Very plunged whole-heartedly into his work, so much so that he graduated second in his class. Of prime importance, however, was the spiritual development that was beginning to take place. He immersed himself in the theology of the Unitarian creed, intending for himself a career as a minister and poet. This can be viewed as an active rebellion against his mother’s tenacious defense of atheism. He was soon to develop a zealous belief that was far more powerful than his mother’s zealous refusal to believe.
Very began to expand his reading during this period to the literature of the day, particularly the British and German Romantics and, of course, Shakespeare. Byron was particularly important to him, though he was later to categorically reject Byron’s philosophy as he drew closer to his God. Very also began to compose poetry. These early works, though they did display a lyrical potential, were not particularly effective.
Very’s religious monomania began to take shape in the waning days of his undergraduate career. He was never comfortable with women, and at this point he decided to eschew their society entirely. Unable to deal with the temptation, Very decided that the best course of action was to avoid the temptation. This, however, was only the first stage. During this period he purchased his ticket to the ascetic train which was to carry him to the end of line, the eventual obliteration of self and immersion in the will of God.
Very’s personal philosophy was accelerating its breakaway from the hide-bound conservatism of the Harvard faculty. His essays, primarily his two Bowdoin Prize lectures, strained against the shackles of religious and literary orthodoxy. He was also finding his poetic voice, aided by his shift from heroic couplets to the far more appropriate sonnet form.
In 1836 Very assumed the role of Greek Tutor and unofficial divinity student. That same year he discovered Emerson’s Nature. He read it carefully, adding marginalia. Nature was for Very not a sacred text. It was rather the work of a similar though far from identical mind. Very found bits of Nature appealing, but only those that conformed with his nearly developed weltanschauung. He particularly appreciated the notion that each man is a potential vessel in which God may dwell.
Very as a tutor was much beloved by his students. His class was not as formal as those of the more established professors, and he was not afraid to leave Greek behind and deliver soliloquies aimed at the moral improvement of his young listeners. He often took a personal interest in these young men, going for walks with them and visiting them in their rooms.
During this period the momentum of the development of Very’s personal philosophy of religion continued to build. His plan to destroy all trace of the sensual self and open himself up to the influx of God was proceeding apace, as was evident in his journals and the lovely sonnets he submitted to the Salem Observer, of which “To the Canary Bird” and “Beauty” are excellent examples.
Very soon attracted the notice of the rather incestuous community of New England intelligentsia. Miss Elizabeth Peabody attended one of Very’s lectures and was fascinated. She drew him in to her world, a world that included Emerson, Alcott, Channing, Hawthorne and other notable freethinkers, poets and progressive clergymen. These figures were to compose the audience for Very’s passion play.
The spring and summer of 1838 saw Jones Very hard at work on his essay on Shakespeare, which was completed in September. In this magnum opus Very combined his infatuation with Hamlet (a topic which was later to be expanded in his essay on Hamlet, a companion essay to the Shakespeare piece) with image of Shakespeare as a divinely inspired poet. Shakespeare was in a sense perfect; his work defined what is man. He was granted by God perfect genius, perfect knowledge of this mortal coil. Yet he was not the all in all. What he lacked, a gift that Shakespeare consciously declined, was a perfect wisdom. He did not fathom the ways of God; he did not allow God to fully express himself through him. Very hoped to remedy that lack in his own person. This essay was the explication of the ways of Very to men.
The summer of 1838 was a pivotal time. Emerson made his first acquaintance with Very just weeks before he was to deliver his Divinity School Address that was to send the Harvard faculty into a paroxysm of consternation. Very was winnowing the last wisps of worldliness and will from his soul. The day of reckoning was nearly upon him.
That day was September the thirteenth. The last traces of self-will were banished. Very Jones was now a pure vessel through which flowed the same spirit of God that had flowed through Jesus Christ. Here was the Second Coming.
So just how did a lonely, brilliant but erratic young poet from Salem come to the realization that he was the chosen one of God? There is, of course, the psychoanalytic interpretation. His mother was a passionate woman, outcast from society for her devotion to disbelief. He wanted to save her, bring her into the fold, a task that would require an extraordinary action. He wanted to transcend his sinful birth. He wanted to become closer to his deceased father by means of channeling the will of The Father. His fascination with Hamlet should not come as a surprise. Yet there was more.
In a sense he was taking the tenets of Christianity and of particularly Transcendentalism to their logical conclusion, or at least one of their logical conclusions. To quote the Apostle Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11: 1) and “we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6: 16). To quote Emerson’s Divinity School Address:
The man who renounces himself, comes to himself . . . The man on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity . . . look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.
Very considered himself to be this new Teacher. Himself he had renounced, thus rendering him wide open to God. There was no self left, therefore all was Divine, and the figure of Christ had returned to earth in the form of a man. Jones Very was thus the inevitable omega of transcendentalism.
With the light of grace shining through him so clearly, Very could not remain in his position at Harvard for long. He was soon dismissed, and returned to the house of his mother in Salem. Her passion could not withstand her son’s. She was quickly converted to his cause.
Very was, however, a bit too anxious to share his good news of great joy. After sharing the fullness of his vision with Elizabeth Peabody, he proceeded to enlighten the ministers of the town. One of these, the Reverend Upham, was somewhat less than convinced, and had Very forcibly committed to McLean Hospital in nearby Charlestown. He was released after a month when the hospital realized that a) he was harmless and b) they could do nothing for him. Very then headed for Concord.
Very spent five days with Emerson that autumn. In Very, Emerson saw someone that had gone too far; in Emerson, Very saw someone who was unwilling to go far enough. They were fascinated by each other’s company, though their relationship was never entirely placid. Emerson would subsequently refer to Very as his “brave saint.”
Very continued to spread his gospel throughout the winter. Having learned to avoid those likely to be strongly opposed to his message, he concentrated on converting those who already had one foot in his camp. However, neither Channing nor Emerson nor Alcott nor Hawthorne nor Sophia Peabody nor Elizabeth Peabody nor in fact anyone was willing to give up all in order to follow him. He was to remain without disciples.
Very produced some of his finest poetry during this period, or rather the spirit of God by way of Very produced some of its finest poetry. These poems tend either to be melancholy pæans to the almighty and Very’s relationship thereto or savage indictments of the blindness in men and the hopelessness of their lot. “The Son” is representative of the former, “The Eagles” of the latter.
Very, in despair of attracting apostles, retired from the world six months after his epiphany. There had been foreshadowing in his work that his mission was to last only a year. Indeed, he did not leave his house for another several months, communicating with the outside world by way of his family, his letters and his poems. The spirit breathed to him a cycle of sonnets, the last of which is entitled “The Garden.”
Very had, during his confinement, communicated with Emerson the desire to publish a volume of his poetry, which Emerson had agreed to edit. Certain disagreements as to the nature of this volume led Very to reenter the world in June 1839 in order to discuss these arrangements with Emerson. Very did not want his poems changed, for he regarded them to be not his work, but rather the work of the spirit. Emerson disagreed. Very pleaded with both Emerson and his wife Lidian, with whom he formed a rather close relationship. It was all for naught. The more radical poems were expunged, grammar and wording were normalized; the revolutionary nature of the work was softened for the public taste. Essays and Poems by Jones Very, containing the essays Shakespeare and Hamlet, as well as sixty-odd poems, was published in September 1839, one year after God had set up shop in the body of a man. Outside of a small circle of New England intellectuals, whose response was mixed, although Emerson reviewed it positively in the Dial, the volume was largely ignored. Very’s “twelve-month state of grace terminated in September 1839, as he predicted it would.”  A fire that bright cannot burn perpetually in a man. Either he is consumed, or the fire must inevitably fade. Though his friends had feared for his martyrdom, it had not occurred. Very’s attempts to stoke the flames were ineffectual. The fullness of God had departed from his frame. Jones Very spent the remaining forty years of his life basking in the afterglow.
The Canary Bird
Biographical sketch copyright © Bryan Hileman, 2014.
Used with permission from American Transcendentalism Web.
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