Jones Very
1813-1880


Jones Very (28 August 1813-8 May 1880), Transcendentalist poet and friend of Emerson and Hawthorne, is today best known for his intensely pious religious sonnets describing the nature of the "will-less existence" which he attempted to live and popularize in the late 1830s. He was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to a long line of seafarers, his father a ship's captain; but his early inclination proved to be intellectual. He entered Harvard as a sophomore in 1834, and quickly distinguished himself there as an essayist and classical scholar, winning the coveted Bowdoin Prize for his essays two consecutive years. The second of these, an essay on Epic Poetry, came to the attention of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who in turn brought it to the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1838. Thus began a close but at times turbulent friendship between the two men, with Emerson pushing Very toward a more professional literary career, and Very trying to convert Emerson to his own religious vision. While Very's critical essays gained him immediate attention, Emerson soon discovered that his poetic talent was even greater. His poems grew out of an increasingly intense mysticism, which began to develop in his college years, culminating in a bout of near insanity in the period immediately after college. He remained at Harvard as a Greek tutor and divinity student after his graduation in 1836, and in the fall of 1838 he apocalyptically told his students to "Flee to the mountains, for the end of all things is at hand." He returned later to Salem to convince people that he embodied the Second Coming of Christ. Very spent some time in 1838 in the McLean Asylum, his "insanity" proving to be closer to nervous exhaustion, but he retained the respect of those who knew him best. "Such a mind cannot be lost," Emerson remarked. Public recognition for his poetry began to grow in these years, with James Freeman Clarke publishing many of his sonnets in the Western Messenger in 1839, and Emerson overseeing the publication of Essays and Poems the same year. Working almost exclusively in the difficult form of the Shakespearean sonnet, Very returned repeatedly to the theme of a spiritual life guided by the complete submergence of the individual will into the nature of God. Such a conception of "will-less existence," which has much in common with both mysticism and with other traditional Christian forms of quietist moralism, accounts for what readers have noted as the burning intensity of Very's better poems, and his unusual technique of assuming the voice of God or the Spirit in some of them. Very's career at Harvard ended with his breakdown of 1838, but in 1843 he was licensed to preach as a Unitarian minister. Returning to his family home in Salem, he lived with his sisters Lydia (herself a minor poet) and Frances, preaching occasionally at various churches in the area, and continuing to write verse as an unofficial laureate of Salem, though not of the quantity or the quality of that written during his period of religious excitement. His retirement into self-effacing quiet to Salem after 1840 is somewhat puzzling, but it hints at a man devoted to the cultivation of his spiritual life. Very's poetic reputation has grown to an extent with the increasing importance of the Transcendentalist movement, even though he is in many ways closer to earlier Christian and Unitarian thinking than Transcendentalism. His narrow range of poetic material, consisting almost exclusively of religious poems or nature poems tinged with religious overtones, has hampered his wider recognition, as has his tendency to use well-worn forms of Christian terminology and phrasing, which Emerson criticized in the July 1841 Dial. But he made a much needed contribution to Transcendentalism--a number of poems of stylistic excellence and technical polish which embodied a unique and forceful religious vision.