Teaching Jones Very

In 1838, Harvard graduate Jones Very (pronounced JO-nǝs VEE-ry) went around Salem telling people that he was the Second Coming of Christ. This faux pas secured him a two-month stay at McLean’s Asylum for the Insane. (Bronson Alcott remarked that Very was “diswitted in the contemplation of the holiness of Divinity.”) Upon his release, he began displaying hundreds of sonnets he was writing—or rather, that God was writing through him. It was a tremendous burst of literary productivity; he was, writes Helen Deese, a “dynamo of poetic energy.” Elizabeth Palmer Peabody recommended Very’s work to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who served as the literary agent and anonymous editor of his Essays and Poems (Boston: Little and Brown, 1839).

Very’s sonnets can be interesting texts for the classroom. Many of them, such as “The New Birth,” feature the “born again” rhetoric that structures so much early American literature. Very’s conviction that one becomes a new, different person upon spiritual rebirth led him into some grammatical vagaries. How to distinguish between the you you are and the you you will be? “’Tis to yourself I speak; you cannot know / Him whom I call in speaking such an one, / For thou beneath the earth lie buried low, / Which he alone as living walks upon,” he claims in the aptly titled sonnet “Yourself.” Perhaps this is what Margaret Fuller had in mind when she generously referred to his “elasticity of spirit.”

In the 1830s and 1840s, Very’s poems gained some notoriety because they were potentially blasphemous. A sonnet such as “I Am the Way” suggested that Very still thought he was Christ re-incarnate. (And because Very believed, at the least, that his poems were divinely inspired, he insisted that even slight revisions to his manuscripts would constitute an affront to God—to which a bemused Emerson supposedly replied that the Holy Spirit should have a better command of spelling and grammar!) In his best sonnets, such as “The Created,” Very’s syntax troubles the distinction between the poet, the reader, and God: “Behold! as day by day the spirit grows, / Thou see’st by inward light things hid before; / Till what God is, thyself, his image, shows.” That last line artfully effects the transcendentalist dictum that divinity might be found within the self. As Lawrence Buell notes, “The alternation between divine, prophetic, and human voices” in Very’s poems has “a provocatively disorienting effect on the reader.”

In the twentieth century, some scholars found Very’s voice to be in harmony with Modernist sensibilities. Yvor Winters was largely responsible for bringing Very’s name back into consideration. Winters championed “The Created” especially and maintained that Very’s transcendentalism was more authentically experienced than Emerson’s. F. O. Matthiessen promoted some of Very’s sonnets such as “The Dead,” which bears a noticeable thematic similarity to T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

For today’s audience, Very’s emphasis on self-annihilation (as opposed to Emerson’s self-reliance) is probably his most interesting trait. The opening lines of his poem “They Better Self”—“I am thy other self, what thou wilt be, / When thou art I, the one see’st now”—anticipate Rimbaud’s far-more-famous “Je est un autre.” Very took the “death of the author” as seriously as any other nineteenth-century poet. He firmly believed that he had died to the world. Subjectivity is strangely both overconfident and terrifically unstable in his sonnets.

If nothing else, Very is worth a moment for his character alone, which was a mass of contradictions. According to biographer Edward Gittleman, “He was an irritating mixture of brilliance and absurdity, profundity and simplicity, piety and blasphemy, equanimity and anxiety, excitement and dullness, innocence and guilt, humility and messianic delusion.” David Dowling more succinctly diagnoses Very with a “messianic persecution complex.” His work is a fascinating facet of American transcendentalism—and an extreme example of American poetry writ large.

 

Select Scholarship:

Yvor Winters, “Jones Very and R. W. Emerson: Aspects of New England Mysticism,” Maule’s Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism (New Directions, 1938), 123–146

William Irving Bartlett, Jones Very: Emerson’s “Brave Saint” (Duke UP, 1942)

Edward Gittleman, Jones Very: The Effective Years, 1833–1840 (Columbia UP, 1967)

Lawrence Buell, “Transcendental Egoism in Very and Whitman,” Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Cornell UP, 1973), 312–330

David Robinson, “The Exemplary Self and the Transcendent Self in the Poetry of Jones Very,” ESQ 24 (1978): 206–214

Helen R. Deese, ed., Jones Very: The Complete Poems (U of Georgia P, 1993)

Sarah Turner Clayton, The Angelic Sins of Jones Very (Peter Lang, 1999)

Benjamin Reiss, “Emerson’s Close Encounters with Madness,” Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture (U of Chicago P, 2008), 103–141

David Dowling, “Jones Very: A Poet’s Zeal,” Emerson’s Protégés: Mentoring and Marketing Transcendentalism’s Future (Yale UP, 2014), 206–237

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