Jones Very

Jones Very

Jones Very (August 28, 1813 - May 8, 1880) was an American essayist, poet, clergymen, and mystic associated with the American Transcendentalism movement.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts to two unwed first cousins, Jones Very became associated with Harvard University, first as an undergraduate, then as a student in the Harvard Divinity School and as a tutor of Greek. He began studying epic poetry and was invited to lecture on the topic in his home town, which drew the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Soon, Very began asserting that he was the Second Coming of Christ, resulting in his dismissal from Harvard and his eventual institutionalization in an insane asylum. When he was released, Emerson helped him issue a collection called "Essays and Poems" in 1839. Very lived the majority of his life as a recluse from then on, issuing poetry only sparingly. He died in 1880.

Biography

Very was born in Salem, Massachusetts and spent much of his childhood at sea.Kane, Paul. "Poetry of the American Renaissance". New York: George Braziller, 1995: 174. ISBN 0-8076-1398-3] He was the oldest of six children, born out of wedlock to two first cousins.McAleer, John. "Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter". Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984: 282. ISBN 0316553417.] His mother, Lydia Very, was known for being an aggressive freethinker who made her atheistic beliefs known to all.Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists". Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007: 70. 9780820329581.] She believed that marriage was only a moral arrangement and not a legal one. [Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "Emerson: The Mind on Fire". Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 302. ISBN 0-520-08808-5] When Jones Very was ten, his father, a shipmaster, took him on a sailing voyage to Russia. A year later, his father had Very serve as a cabin boy on a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. His father died on the return trip. As a teenager, Very composed a poem for the dedication of a new building for a Unitarian church in Salem: "O God; On this, our temple, rest thy smile, Till bent with days its tower shall nod". [Marshall, Megan. "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism". Boston: Mariner Books, 2005: 337. ISBN 978-0-618-71169-7]

Harvard years

During his teen years, Very worked at an auction house in Salem before enrolling at Harvard College in 1834.Baker, Carlos. "Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait". New York: Viking Press, 1996: 121. ISBN 0-670-86675-X] During his college years, he was shy, studious, and ambitious of literary fame. He had became interested in the works Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. His first few poems were published in his hometown newspaper, the "Salem Observer", while he completed his studies. He graduated from Harvard in 1836, ranked number two in his class.McAleer, John. "Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter". Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984: 281. ISBN 0316553417.] He was chosen to speak at his commencement; his address was titled "Individuality". After graduating, Very served as a tutor in Greek before entering Harvard Divinity School, thanks to the financial assistance of an uncle. [Buell, Lawrence. "New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance". New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 388. ISBN 0-521-37801-X] Though Very never completed his divinity degree, he held temporary pastorates in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

Becoming known for his ability to draw people into literature, Very was asked to speak at a lyceum in his hometown of Salem in 1837. There, he was befriended by Elizabeth Peabody, who wrote to Emerson suggesting Very lecture in Concord as well.Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists". Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007: 71. 9780820329581.] In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson was convinced to arrange a talk by Very at the Concord Lyceum. Very lectured on epic poetry on April 4 of that year after having walked twenty miles from Salem to Concord to deliver it. and Emerson made up for the meager $10 payment by inviting Very to his home for dinner. Emerson signed Very's personal copy of "Nature" with the words: "Har [mony] of Man with Nature Must Be Reconciled With God".

For a time, Very tried to recruit Nathaniel Hawthorne as a brother figure in his life. Though Hawthorne treated him kindly, he was not impressed by Very. [Miller, Edwin Haviland. "Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne". Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 140. ISBN 0877453322] Unlike Hawthorne, however, Emerson found him "remarkable" and, when Very showed up at his home unannounced along with Cornelius Conway Felton in 1838, Emerson invited several other friends including Henry David Thoreau to meet him. Emerson, however, was surprised at Very's behavior in larger groups. "When he is in the room with other persons, speech stops, as if there were a corpse in the apartment", he wrote. [McAleer, John. "Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter". Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984: 281–282. ISBN 0316553417.] Even so, in May 1838, the same month Very published his "Epic Poetry" lecture in the "Christian Examiner", Emerson brought Very to a meeting of the Transcendental Club, where the topic of discussion was "the question of mysticism". [Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists". Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007: 72. 9780820329581.] At the meeting, held at the home of Caleb Stetson in Medford, Massachusetts, Very was actively engaged in the discussion, building his reputation as a mystic within that circle.Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "Emerson: The Mind on Fire". Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 303. ISBN 0-520-08808-5]

Mental collapse

Very was known as an eccentric, prone to odd behavior and may have suffered from bipolar disorder.Miller, Edwin Haviland. "Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne". Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 139. ISBN 0877453322] The first signs of a breakdown came shortly after meeting Emerson, as Very was completing an essay on William Shakespeare. As Very later explained, "I felt within me a new will... it was not a feeling of my own but a sensible will that was not my own... These two consciousnesses, as I may call them, continued with me".Baker, Carlos. "Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait". New York: Viking Press, 1996: 122. ISBN 0-670-86675-X] In August 1837, while traveling by train, he was suddenly overcome with terror at its speed until he realized he was being "borne along by a divine engine and undertaking his life-journey". [Marshall, Megan. "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism". Boston: Mariner Books, 2005: 338. ISBN 978-0-618-71169-7] As he told Henry Ware, Jr., professor of pulpit eloquence and pastoral care at Harvard Divinity School, divine inspiration helped him suddenly understand the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and that Christ was having his Second Coming within him. When Ware did not believe him, Very said, "I had thought you did the will of the Father, and that I should receive some sympathy from you—But I now find that you are doing your own will, and not the will of your father". Very also claimed that he was under the influence of the Holy Spirit and composed verse while in this state. Emerson did not believe Very's claim and, noting the poor writing, he asked, "cannot the spirit parse & spell?" [Gura, Philip F. "American Transcendentalism: A History". New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 288. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8] Very said he was also tormented by strong sexual desires which he believed were only held in check by the will of God. To help control himself, he avoided speaking with or even looking at women—he called it his "sacrifice of Beauty".

One of Very's students, a fellow native of Salem named Samuel Johnson, Jr., said that people were ridiculing Very behind his back since he had "gained the fame of being cracked (or crazy, if you are not acquainted with Harvard technicalities)". During one of his tutoring sessions, Very declared that he was "infallible: that he was a man of heaven, and superior to all the world around him". [Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists". Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007: 79. 9780820329581.] He then cried out to his students, "Flee to the mountains, for the end of all things is at hand". Harvard president Josiah Quincy III relieved Very of his duties, referring to a "nervous collapse" that required him to be left in the care of his younger brother Washington Very, himself a freshman at Harvard.Baker, Carlos. "Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait". New York: Viking Press, 1996: 123. ISBN 0-670-86675-X] After returning to Salem, he visited Elizabeth Peabody on September 16, 1838. As she recalled,

After this, Very told her she would soon feel different, explaining, "I am the Second Coming". He performed similar "baptisms" to other people throughout Salem, including ministers. It was finally Reverend Charles Wentworth Upham who had had committed.Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "Emerson: The Mind on Fire". Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 304. ISBN 0-520-08808-5]

Very was institutionalized for a month at a hospital near Boston, the McLean Asylum, as he wrote, "contrary to my will".Marshall, Megan. "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism". Boston: Mariner Books, 2005: 344. ISBN 978-0-618-71169-7] While there, he finished an essay on "Hamlet", arguing that the play is about "the great reality of a soul unsatisfied in its longings after immortality" and that "Hamlet has been called mad, but as we think, Shakespeare thought more of his madness than he did of the wisdom of the rest of the play". He was released on October 17, 1838, though he refused to renounce his beliefs. As he left, other patients reportedly thanked him as he left. [Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists". Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007: 80. 9780820329581.] That same month, Very stayed with Emerson at his home in Concord for a week. While he was visiting, Emerson wrote in his journal on October 29, "J. Very charmed us all by telling us he hated us all."

Amos Bronson Alcott wrote of Very in December 1838:

Poetry

Emerson saw a kindred spirit in Very and defended his sanity. As he wrote to Margaret Fuller, "Such a mind cannot be lost". Emerson himself had recently been ostracized as well after his controversial lecture, the "Divinity School Address". [Marshall, Megan. "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism". Boston: Mariner Books, 2005: 345. ISBN 978-0-618-71169-7] He helped Very publish a small volume, "Essays and Poems" in 1839. [Gura, Philip F. "American Transcendentalism: A History". New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 194. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8] The poems collected in this volume were chiefly Shakespearian sonnets. He was never widely read, and was largely forgotten by the end of the nineteenth century, but in the 1830s and 1840s the Transcendentalists, including Emerson, as well as James Freeman Clarke and William Cullen Bryant praised his work. William Ellery Channing admired his poetry as well, writing that his insanity "is only superficial". [Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "Emerson: The Mind on Fire". Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 305. ISBN 0-520-08808-5]

Very continued writing throughout his life, though sparingly. Many of his later poems were never collected but only distributed in manuscript form among the Transcendentalists. [Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists". Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007: 81. 9780820329581.] In January 1843, his work was included in the first issue of "The Pioneer", a journal edited by James Russell Lowell which also included the first publication of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart". [Duberman, Martin. "James Russell Lowell". Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966: 46–47.]

Final years and death

Jones Very believed his role as a prophet would last only twelve months. By September 1839, his role was complete. [Gittleman, Edwin. "Jones Very: The Effective Years: 1833-1840". New York: Columbia University Press, 1967: 360.] The last years of Very's life were spent in Salem as a recluse under the care of his sister. It was during these years that he held roles as a minister in Eastport, Maine and North Beverly, Massachusetts, though these roles were temporary because he was too shy. By age 45, he had retired. [Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "Emerson: The Mind on Fire". Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 306. ISBN 0-520-08808-5] He died in 1880 and, upon hearing of Very's death, Alcott wrote a brief remembrance on May 16, 1880:bquote|The newspapers record the death of Jones Very of Salem, Mass. It was my fortune to have known the man while he was tutor in Harvard College and writing his Sonnets and Essays on Shakespeare, which were edited by Emerson, and published in 1839. Very was then the dreamy mystic of our circle of Transcendentalists, and a subject of speculation by us. He professed to be taught by the Spirit and to write under its inspiration. When his papers were submitted to Emerson for criticism the spelling was found faulty and on Emerson's pointing out the defect, he was told that this was by dictation of the Spirit also. Whether Emerson's witty reply, "that the Spirit should be a better speller," qualified the mystic's vision does not appear otherwise than that the printed volume shows no traces of illiteracy in the text.
Very often came to see me. His shadowy aspect at times gave him a ghostly air. While walking by his side, I remember, he seemed spectral, — and somehow using my feet instead of his own, keeping as near me as he could, and jostling me frequently. His voice had a certain hollowness, as if echoing mine. His whole bearing made an impression as if himself were detached from his thought and his body were another's. He ventured, withal, to warn me of falling into idolatries, while he brought a sonnet or two (since printed) for my benefit.
His temperament was delicate and nervous, disposed to visionariness and a dreamy idealism, stimulated by over-studies and the school of thought then in the ascendant. His sonnets and Shakespearean essays surpass any that have since appeared in subtlety and simplicity of execution. [Alcott, Amos Bronson (ed. Odell Shepard). "The Journals of Bronson Alcott." Boston: Little, Brown, 1938: 516–517]

References

External links

* [http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/very/ Very biography through 1840] from Transcendentalism Web
* [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA01/Lisle/dial/hs~very.html Very article] from Dictionary of Literary Biography
* [http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/poets/very.php Harvard Square Library bio]
* [http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?sid=53a47b8956e6c49e0f606bca5400f091&c=moa&idno=AET4111.0001.001&view=toc "Essays and Poems] " (1839) at Making of America Books
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=pki0pawynJgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22Jones+Very%22&lr=&client=firefox-a "Essays and Poems"] (1839) at Google Book Search


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