Ralph Waldo Emerson was endlessly seeking his ideal writer, who was “part and particle of God,” as he wrote in Nature (1836). So it comes as no surprise that in the spring of 1838 he embraced the poet Jones Very, a twenty-four-year-old Greek tutor studying at the Harvard Divinity School, and soon hailed him as “our brave saint.” “Wherever that young enthusiast goes,” Emerson confided to his journal, “he will astonish and disconcert.”
Very did astonish, and he did disconcert. He astonished and disconcerted his fellow students, not to mention Harvard officials, when, that September, he claimed that the Holy Spirit communicated directly through him and that he, Jones Very, was the “second coming.” Very also barged into the study of Professor Henry Ware Jr., declaring that he’d “fully given up his own will, and now only did the will of the Father—that it was the Father who was speaking thro’ him,” as Clark Davis recounts in God’s Scrivener, his new biography of Very. Even more apocalyptically, he commanded the students in his Greek class to “flee to the mountains, for the end of all things is at hand!”
“It is almost fearful to look upon him,” one divinity student remarked. “I hardly know what to think of the man.” Harvard’s president promptly sent Very packing.
Things didn’t fare any better for him back home in Salem, Massachusetts. Deadly serious and fairly aggressive, Very informed his neighbors that they were wicked and that he was the first good man to exist since the time of the apostles. When he visited and tried to “baptize” local ministers, at least one of them threw him out of the house. A few days later, Very was shipped off for a month to the McLean Asylum for the Insane.
The Reverend Charles Wentworth Upham blamed none other than Emerson for Very’s bizarre behavior. After all, the conservative clergy and the Boston gentry generally regarded Emerson, a lapsed Unitarian preacher, as heretical, scandalous, or just plain crazy, particularly after he delivered his infamous Harvard Divinity School Address in the summer of 1838, when he declared not only that “all men have sublime thoughts” but that “God incarnates himself in man.” He wasn’t invited back to Harvard for almost thirty years.
During his month at McLean, Very, who had been writing and publishing verse for several years, began producing sonnets at an astonishing rate. Though only one volume of his poetry appeared in his lifetime, his sonnets continued to be anthologized well into the twentieth century. In 1900 they appeared in Edmund Clarence Stedman’s collection of American poetry, and in 1950 the scholar Perry Miller included eighteen poems and three essays by Very in his anthology The Transcendentalists. Poets like Karl Shapiro, Donald Hall, and John Hollander also anthologized Very, the latter in his compendium of nineteenth-century poetry for the Library of America (1993). Still, when his name appears, it seldom crops up without the prefix “eccentric” or “mad,” which is catnip for a biographer.
Yet the biographical record is meager. Most of the family papers were burned after the last Very sibling died. Emerson mentions him only a few if meaningful times in his journals, and Very’s neighbor Elizabeth Palmer Peabody refers occasionally to him in her letters. There is some correspondence between Very and his classmates or his students and a couple of asides in the letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne, his Salem neighbor. Few biographers have therefore taken him on, at least not since Edwin Gittleman’s Jones Very: The Effective Years, 1833–1840 (1967), a model of diligent scholarship and writerly elegance. But now Davis, a professor of English at the University of Denver, enthusiastically argues for a “reevaluation of the existing biographical evidence” in his sympathetic God’s Scrivener.
Davis draws on the complete edition of Very’s poetry, skillfully edited in 1993 by Helen R. Deese, which includes her splendid introduction to his life and work. Davis also uses Harvard’s helpful digitalization of Very’s commonplace books, which, as he knows, Gittleman had already mined. Admitting that there isn’t much new material, Davis did discover the marriage record of Very’s parents (assumed lost) and probate records from his father’s estate, which, he says, “allow us to reconsider Very’s biography from a wider perspective”—that is, from the perspective of Very’s attachment to his combative and passionate mother, Lydia.
Born in Salem in 1813, Very was the eldest of six children. One of his brothers died in infancy; another, Franklin, was born blind and died at the age of four in 1822. The next year, when Jones was nine, he traveled with his father, a shipmaster also named Jones Very, to Denmark, Russia, Portugal, and New Orleans. Captain Very died two years later, and Lydia became embroiled in a public dispute with her father-in-law over her husband’s property; the court sided with her.
“That God the father plays so important a role in Very’s theology,” Davis writes, “enabling his own assumption of the role of son suggests at the very least the lingering desire to recover or replicate his relationship to his own lost father in the sublimated form of spirit.” But it was likely his mother’s feistiness and “emotional dominance,” Davis more fervently claims, that drove him “to seek a form of freedom that mimics her presence while pulling away from it.”
Though Davis disputes Gittleman’s contention that Very’s mother tried to impose on her children her purported atheism (she was a follower of the feminist and freethinker Fanny Wright), he advances an interpretation of Very that is as speculative and overdetermined as he justifiably finds Gittleman’s. In fact, both biographers adamantly focus on Lydia Very, who in Davis’s reading was in perpetual mourning over the deaths of her husband and her two children. “It may well be that her eldest son needed to find ways to mitigate the kind of sorrow she could evoke in him,” Davis claims.
For Davis, Lydia’s inability to prevent her son Franklin’s death also haunts the speaker in many of Very’s poems. Again surmising that because he needed “to escape his mother’s emotionally troubled life by sublimating his erotic desires (for were these not the source of such trouble?) into a higher, quieter devotion,” Davis maintains that before long Very regarded the poet as “the voice of unfiltered Spirit,” or an instrument of God, in tune, as he wrote in his poem “He Was Acquainted with Grief,” with “the spirit’s song above.” Very was presumably seeking something like self-annihilation, Davis continues, to “transcend or overcome grief—or, more generally, to escape the turbulent passions of his mother’s willful but anguished life.”
This is a lot. But whatever the reasons behind Very’s manic behavior or his theology, he was obviously not just another student influenced by Emerson’s Divinity School Address. Very, who had worked for a local auctioneer and taught school, earned enough money to enter Harvard as a sophomore in 1833, graduated second in his class, and twice received the Bowdoin Prize for his essays. Davis, who is excellent at analyzing Very’s interpretations of such writers as Byron, Wordsworth, Milton, and Lamartine (particularly his A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land), argues that these writers initially helped him develop his definition of the poet: “Lamartine offered a way to think about the prophetic spirit that was romantic but still identifiably Christian,” Davis contends. Very extracted several passages from Lamartine’s travelogue and copied them into his notebooks, among them: “In the early ages, the prophet, or sacred poet, and the poet, or prophet profane, were everywhere regarded as divine beings. They are, at the present day, looked on as madmen.” As he later wrote in his poem “The Will,” “Help me in Christ to learn to do Thy will,/…And gain for me the lyre and martyr-crown.”
“The gathering time has come and the harvest is now reaping from the wide plains of Earth,” Very wrote Emerson in the fall of 1838. “Here even here the will of the Father begins to be done as in heaven. My friend I tell you these things as they are told me.” Emerson was not put off. After Very was discharged from McLean, Emerson welcomed him to Concord and stoutly told a friend, “I wish the whole world were as mad as he.” He instructed Margaret Fuller to “talk with him a few hours and you will think all insane but he. Monomania or mono Sania he is a very remarkable person.” But Very was not an easy guest. Emerson confided to his journal that Very found “the bad elements in every person whom he meets, which repels him.” Very also accused him of being “covetous in my hold of truth,” Emerson recounted, and advised him to “pass out of that world in which you are naked (that is willess) as you came in. Then shall you have a new will born of the Spirit which also when submited to the Father you shall be one with Him.”
According to Davis, Very had developed “the solution to his inner conflict” by surrendering his will to the Holy Spirit. “All we have belongs to God,” Very told a friend, adding that “we ought to have no will of our own.” When he met the generous-souled Reverend William Ellery Channing, Very explained to him how it was necessary to comply fully with the voice of the Spirit. Channing gently asked him if he’d rested his arm on the mantel of the fireplace of his own accord or in obedience to the “Spirit.” Without hesitation, Very said, “In obedience to the Spirit.”
Emerson too was gentle and remained generous, offering to help select and edit Very’s poems for publication, along with his essays on epic poetry and Hamlet, as well as one on Shakespeare that he admired. But editing him was no simple task. Bronson Alcott, the oracular author of what he called “Orphic Sayings,” said that Very insisted that even his misspellings were “by dictation of the Spirit.” Hearing this, Emerson wryly replied that “the Spirit should be a better speller.”
Very acquiesced but later told Emerson, who omitted a number of his poems from the volume and altered others, “I preferred my own lines. I do not know but I ought to submit to such changes as done by the rightful authority of an Editor but I felt a little sad.” As Davis points out, when Very’s Essays and Poems appeared in 1839, Emerson had likely intended to present him as more of a conventional Christian convert than as a madman who believed he spoke in the voice of the deity. So poems like “The Message” were not included among the sixty-five Emerson chose:
There is no voice but it is born of Me
I am there is no other God beside
Before Me all that live shall bow the knee
Emerson also omitted the more apocalyptic of Very’s poems, such as “The Watchman,” spoken in the persona of Christ:
Prepare ye all my supper to attend!
I have prepared it long that you might eat;
Come in, and I will treat you as a friend.
Instead, he included some of the sonnets that reflect joy in nature, with images of birds, rivers, and trees. Very could take pleasure in the simple economy of the here and now. He writes in “The Presence”:
With gladder heart I read thy holy book,
Because Thou art the eyes by which I see;
This aged chair, that table, watch, and door
Around in ready service ever wait;
Nor can I ask of Thee a menial more
To fill the measure of my large estate,
For Thou Thyself, with all a Father’s care,
Where’er I turn, art ever with me there.
And by placing the lovely “The Prayer” at the end of the collection, Emerson offers “reassurance, if nothing else,” Davis movingly writes, “that the volume…was not the product of a blasphemous lunatic but the sincere record of a searching soul blessed by a visionary season.”
Wilt thou not visit me?
The plant beside me feels thy gentle dew;
And every blade of grass I see,
From thy deep earth its moisture grew.
When Essays and Poems came out, Emerson published an unsigned review praising the poetry as sincere and as pure as nature. Rather relentlessly, though, he also spoke of its shortcomings: “In this age of revolt and experiment,” he commented, Very’s poetry adopts “the popular religious language, and so show itself secondary and morbid.” Emerson wasn’t finished. “These sonnets have little range of topics, no extent of observation, no playfulness,” he observed. “There is even a certain torpidity in the concluding lines of some of them, which reminds one of church hymns.”
Unlike Whitman or Dickinson, writers influenced by Emerson’s notion that a poem possesses an architecture of its own, Very remained a tightly formalist poet. “Very’s Holy Ghost speaks in meter and rhyme and follows many of the standard conventions of the English sonnet,” Davis aptly notes. And he suggestively observes that “at least part of his attraction to the form was its ability to constrain or bound his unruly emotions.” Unfortunately, though, this constraint can flatten the poetry, which too frequently offers more in the way of spiritual hectoring or declamation than sustenance. In “The Promise,” Very speaks as the Holy Ghost: “And witness that by me the power is lent/That wakes the dead.” Emerson also omitted that one from Essays and Poems.
Quoting from Very’s “I Am the Way”—“I am the light/By which thou travelest on to meet thy God”—Davis asserts that Very nonetheless pushes the Emersonian notion of a sublime, godlike self to the limit, raising “the deeper questions posed by his absolutist and apocalyptic vision.” That is, Very’s poetry “allows for no ordinary reality, no individual as such, only the remnant, a sort of placeholder for what the self once was.” The self disappears into an intoxicated egoism, detached from everything and everyone. As such, Davis declares, Very’s “‘madness,’ such as it was, can stand simply and purely as an emblem of the pursuit of spirit to its mysterious and estranging conclusions.” To Davis, then, Very was after something in his poetry that he vaguely calls “stillness.” Alluding to one of Very’s prize-winning college essays and his celebration of a poetry that moves toward a “state of being where its thought is action, its word power,” Davis maintains that for Very “the only kind of heroism possible, indeed the only true form of action, is stillness…an internal stillness,” which Davis defines as an abstemious shedding of all desire, an “emptying-out of the self.”
To Davis as well as to Gittleman, Very was thus intending to create a “modern epic of inwardness” or, as Davis describes it, a “nodal point where the fullest development of romantic individualism meets one of the earliest expressions of modern isolation.” In this sense, Very becomes Emerson’s Transcendentalist incarnate, the solitary nonconformist, repelled by vulgarity and frivolity, who shuns general society and walks alone. But cut off from others and locked in his own head, he also portends “modern isolation and emptiness,” Davis declares. In insisting “that he alone had relinquished all trace of his personal being…Very had ironically condemned himself to a form of living death.”
Emerson, who already understood as much, began to regard Very as a grim, sepulchral zealot, a man who practiced “religion for religion’s sake, religion divorced, detached from man, from the world, from science & art; grim, unmarried, insulated, accusing.” Bronson Alcott found Very funereal. “He dies,” said Alcott, “by slowly retreating from the senses.”
Still, Davis concludes that as a poet of “inner divinity or the ventriloquism of divine voice,” Very represents the logical conclusion of a “Transcendental egoism” (the term belongs to the literary scholar Lawrence Buell*) with its “outrageous claims of divinity” (the phrase belongs to Davis). But Transcendentalism is a baggy term, and the Transcendentalists were a motley group with diverse assumptions and aims. Davis’s Transcendental egoism is an academic stalking horse. Unlike Buell’s use of the term, here it ignores Emerson’s labile, performative, and volatile points of view, even about Transcendentalism. It ignores the earthly ethics of, say, the feminist Margaret Fuller, who reminded women that they could be sea captains if they wished; it ignores the abolitionist Theodore Parker, who assisted fugitives escaping enslavement; and it disregards Henry David Thoreau, who respected John Brown, and the quixotic George and Sophia Ripley, founders of the utopian-minded collective Brook Farm. All this could be called Transcendental egoism, alive with a lusty sense of the common good.
After those “effective years” from 1833 to 1840 when, stirred by his religious enthusiasm, Very wrote the ecstatic sonnets on which his poetic reputation is based, he lived another four decades. He was licensed (but not ordained) to preach, which he did in and around Salem, where he remained, and in Maine. Davis carefully studies the hymns and elegies and occasional verse he wrote in his later years: on visiting the graves of Hawthorne and Thoreau, on the laying of the Atlantic cable, on Darwin’s theory of evolution (“In vain do we interrogate the past;/The torch of knowledge doth but dimly show/His path from land to land, from clime to clime;/And who, by natural descent, can know/His origin, or era date in time?”). As Davis acknowledges, the quantity and quality of the poems diminished. They were cautious, predictable, and without conflict or heat or even the compassion that characterized some of Very’s early verse. And in “A Christian Commonwealth,” a late, smug, and unusually bigoted poem, Very writes of Christians like himself, “In vain did they unto the red men preach…/Heedless of knowledge, they must soon decay.”
As a pacifist who grudgingly accepted the import of the Civil War, Very regretted and deplored violence, insisting that “War is never I believe absolutely necessary.” In another sermon, he preached that “we need more faith in moral means & efforts for overcoming the cruelty & injustice of men, and of human governments.” And in “The Poet,” written long after his manic period (which seems to have ended by 1841), Very explained his present mission:
When voices harsh fill all his soul with pain,
So that from even a note he would refrain,
And flee away as with a dove’s swift wing,
Yet for Religion’s sake you see him stay,
And try to raise her service what he may;—
So doth the Poet live amidst his age!
To Davis, Very in the end is a kind of hero devoted to his vision and voice, a maverick committed to something like the beatitudes. He emerges as a kind of protomodern figure, resolute and true, who casts “a strong light on the compromises and half-truths of others.” As Davis writes somewhat polemically, “American ‘enterprise’ may never have a use for such a figure, but whether it needs the strange purity of such a voice, despite (or because of) this unworkable peculiarity, remains an open—and urgent—question.”
Davis goes so far as to suggest that Very’s egotistical and prophetic persona anticipates Whitman’s ego-driven celebrant. Whitman, of course, exercised an empathetic and freewheeling identity—“hankering, gross, mystical, nude,” he exclaimed in “Song of Myself.” But while Whitman’s “left hand hooks you round the waist,” Very aspired to self-erasure and isolation. And unlike Whitman, he could not behold God within every object. Rather, for Very, God is what fills us if we give up who we think we are. “Let the lesson never be forgot,” he writes in “The Way,” “That none the path to happiness can show,/Save He whose way is hidden; only known/To those who seek his love, and his alone.” (Amusingly, an early Very biographer noted that one of the Very family cats was named Walt Whitman.)
“I would not converse with the divinest person more than one week,” Emerson dryly observed in his journals. Very never was easy company, then or now. In his sketch “The Hall of Fantasy,” Hawthorne insightfully and poignantly said it best: “Jones Very stood alone, within a circle which no other of mortal race could enter, nor himself escape from.”