On September 14, 1838, the precociously gifted twenty-three-year-old poet Jones Very was removed under mysterious circumstances from his post as a Greek tutor at Harvard. The previous day, he had visited the Unitarian minister Henry Ware Jr., a prominent opponent of the radical new school of religious thought associated with Very’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Concord-based intellectual circle. Unprompted, Very started reciting a heated, controversial commentary on the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. “To Mr. Ware’s objections,” his fellow divinity student George Moore would later relate,
he said he was willing to yield, but that the spirit would not let him—that this revelation had been made to him, and that what he said was eternal truth—that he had 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. He thinks himself divinely inspired, and says that Christ’s second coming is in him.
Having been asked to leave Harvard, Very had nowhere to go but back to the Salem house in which he’d been raised by his mother, an outspoken atheist who the progressive educator Elizabeth Peabody—one of Very’s close correspondents—described to Emerson as a “tiger of a woman.” (Very’s parents were first cousins who lived together in a kind of common-law union, Lydia Very not believing in marriage as a legal arrangement. His father, a shipmaster, died at sea before Very was in his teens.)
On September 16, Very knocked on Peabody’s door, laid his hand on her head, announced his intention to “baptize” her “with the Holy Ghost and with fire,” recited much of Christ’s Olivet discourse from memory, and, in the words of his biographer Edwin Gittleman, “thereupon began to speak with her in the most matter-of-fact way … without once mentioning what had just taken place between them.” After a few minutes, he left.
Troubled, Peabody appealed to Very’s mother. She found this lifelong “coarse materialist” (as Peabody had once called her) markedly changed, asserting that Jones “was an angel whom God inspired, and proof that there was a God above us, who was Infinite Love.” Very himself, meanwhile, was calling on the town’s conservative religious officials, who had less tolerance for his ministrations than had Peabody. That evening, he paid Peabody a second visit to entrust her with what she called “a monstrous folio sheet of paper, on which were four double columns of Sonnets—which he said the Spirit had enabled him to write.” Several hours later, the Utilitarian minister Charles Wentworth Upham had Very removed from Lydia’s house and committed to the nearby McLean Asylum for the Insane, where Very spent the next month reciting scripture to his fellow patients, strolling good-naturedly around the hospital grounds, and writing an essay on Hamlet.
The one widely distributed photograph of Very as a young man shows a gaunt, mummy-like figure with high cheekbones, deep-set eyes, arched eyebrows and a thin mouth oddly half open. His early years at Harvard—where he arrived at twenty after spending several years working in a Salem auction house—were marked by long periods of solitude, frequent spiritual upheavals, and oscillating intellectual obsessions, first with his teacher Edward Tyrrel Channing, then with the Calvinist epic poet Robert Pollok, then, more fruitfully, with Byron and Coleridge. In his senior year he underwent what he called a sudden “change of heart,” after which he was convinced that “all we have belongs to God and that we have no will of our own.” What stage his sexual life had reached by 1835 isn’t clear, but he was concerned enough about restraining his carnal urges that he gave himself a law “not to speak (or look at) women.”
Intense, hungry, chronically dissatisfied with religious affectation and cant, Very was well suited to his time and place. He was enrolled in Harvard Divinity School when Emerson gave his incendiary address to that institution’s 1838 graduating class, and in his rant to “Mr. Ware” the following fall it was as if he was taking Emerson’s speech startlingly literally, as a plan to be faithfully acted out. Emerson had called it a “defect of Historical Christianity” to place undue importance on “the person of Jesus,” when in fact “the soul knows no persons” and “invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe.” Emerson was relocating the authority to define good Christian behavior from the Unitarian religious establishment to the individual believers in whose interests that establishment purported to act. “That is always best,” he insisted in one of the speech’s densest, most famous passages, “which gives me to myself … That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen … Already the long shadows of untimely oblivion creep over me, and I shall decease forever.”
The Divinity School address was an incitement. (The young pastor Theodore Parker, who would give an almost equally controversial sermon in Boston in 1841, wrote in his journal after hearing Emerson’s speech that “my soul is roused.”) For Very, it was a confirmation of two ideas to which he was already drawn: that spiritual health required acknowledging, “that which shows God” in oneself, and that to insist on loving God only (in Emerson’s words) through “mediator and veil” was a kind of spiritual death. The sonnets he wrote between 1838 and 1839 abound in images of the walking dead, of figures whose “hearts the living God have ceased to know” and who therefore “in their show of life more dead … live / than those that to the earth with many tears they give.”
By the time of the address, Emerson and Very were already friendly. They were introduced in April 1838 by Elizabeth Peabody, whom Emerson wrote the following day with thanks for acquainting him with “such wise men as Mr. Very.” When Very seemed to go mad, Emerson found himself in a difficult position. His intellectual enemies, including Ware, could take Very’s behavior as a sign of the disruptive excesses to which Emerson’s thinking would lead, and which Emerson himself—a settled family man—had never pursued to the end.
After Very’s confinement, Peabody encouraged Emerson to distance himself from the younger poet, who had just sent Emerson a long essay on Shakespeare. But Very lingered in Emerson’s thoughts. Later that month, Emerson wrote Margaret Fuller wondering if she had “heard of the calamity of poor Very,” whose essay was “so deep and true and illustrated so happily and even grandly, that I account it an addition to our really scanty stock of adequate criticism on Shakespeare. Such a mind cannot be lost.”
“Instead of feeling continually that the life is more than the food,” Very was writing in McLean around the time of Emerson’s letter to Fuller, “and the body [more] than the raiment, we live as if it were directly the other way, and by that very state of mind are incapacitated almost from conceiving of one who stood in a truer relation to things.” Shakespeare, for Very, was “the childlike embodiment of this sense of existence,” to which Very believed modern men could only come by submitting to the will of God. In a startling passage in “Shakespeare,” he had associated the playwright’s point of view with the “primeval state of innocence from which we have fallen,” reflected that “we are no longer carried out of ourselves” as Shakespeare was, and insisted that, “would we to attain to” such a state, “it can only be by being born again.” Now, in his new essay, Very wanted to prove that Hamlet’s madness, morbidity, and indecision were something like the pangs preceding this new birth.
Shakespeare’s “continual satisfaction with the simple pleasure of existence,” Very wrote, “must have made him more commonly liable to the fear of death.” Hamlet acts out, in Very’s reading, because he refuses to “feed on that which is not bread, on which to live is death”—because he refuses to value the things of this world and attends instead to the things of the next. When Very describes Hamlet’s mental state, it’s in a passages that seem like transparent self-portraiture:
He does not set this life at a pin’s fee. He is contending in thought with the great realities beyond it; the dark clouds that hang over the valley of the shadow of death, and float but dimly and indistinct before our vision, have, like his father’s ghost, become fixed and definite “in his mind’s eye”; he has looked them into shape, and they stand before him wherever he turns, with a presence that will not be put by.
In this way, “under the influence of those spiritual realities which should qualify our thoughts, he describes objects in a manner which from our position appears very strange and distorting.” Very’s use of phrases such as “our position,” like his allegation that “we” prioritize superficialities like food or clothing over the essential conditions for life and bodily health, was a coy device. The Shakespeare essays had become his way of justifying the extent to which he’d distanced himself from such common delusions and aligned himself instead with the “spiritual realities” Hamlet saw. Shakespeare, for Very, was on his side; it was clear that he “thought more of [Hamlet’s] madness than he did of the wisdom of the rest of the play.”
After a month, Very was discharged from McLean. His condition had not improved, as Gittleman claims his doctor decided, but “he was not violent; he was not depressed,” and “he was anxious to have his freedom of movement restored.” No more than a week later, he came to Concord to stay a week with Emerson. It was the first of several encounters and exchanges during which their relationship came under intense strain. Emerson confided deeply in Very; in a striking journal entry from November 3, four years before the death of Emerson’s young son prompted him to express a similar thought in his great essay “Experience,” he admitted having told Very “that if my wife, my child, my mother, should be taken from me, I should remain whole … I should not grieve enough, although I love them.”
Very, for his part, despaired over what he considered Emerson’s refusal to give himself over fully to God. “He is sensible in me,” Emerson wrote, “of a little colder air than he breathes.” One morning, five days into his visit, Very announced that this would be his “day of hate.” He spoke violently, shrank from handshakes, and excoriated one of Emerson’s guests loudly during a Sunday school teachers’ meeting that night. The following month, from back in Salem, Very was writing Emerson that “you must pass out of that world in which you are, naked (that is, willness) as you came.” It was around this time that Very began assigning his closest friends “sacrifices” he hoped they would make to correct their particular spiritual deficiencies. Peabody’s was “the love of truth,” Emerson’s “the love of thought.”
“Oriental,” “Hebraic”: the words Emerson, Peabody, and their close associate Amos Bronson Alcott used to describe Very suggest how exotic and foreign the Concord circle found him. Their ability to approve of or tolerate Very’s behavior became a kind of test of the limits of their intellectual radicalism. Compared with him they seemed moderate, cautious; he was one of the few figures capable of bringing out their affinities with reactionary Unitarians like Upham and Ware. For Emerson in particular he was the kind of convert that John Bunyan, in his book The Acceptable Sacrifice, had called a “troubler of the house.” The author of the Divinity School address once wrote Peabody worriedly when Very announced a vague intention to drop by Emerson’s home unannounced; what if he had company?
In 1839, Emerson edited a book of Very’s essays and poems—an effort to prove Very’s legitimacy as a thinker and writer to a skeptical public. It was a daring show of support on Emerson’s part; but it also, as the project progressed, sharpened the contrast between the two men’s sensibilities. Just as he would later tell Walt Whitman that (in Whitman’s words) he did not “see the significance of the sex element” in Leaves of Grass, so here Emerson resisted including more than a few of the sonnets in which Very showed his tendency toward doomsday prophecy, violent denunciation, and morbid treatment of bodily decay. He also requested the right to edit the text of the poems themselves, to which Very strongly objected, insisting to Emerson that their shape and form and sometimes unorthodox spelling came directly from the Holy Spirit. In a letter from September 1840 to his friend Elisabeth Hoar, Emerson asked exasperatedly: “Is the poetic imagination amber to embalm & enhance flies & spiders? As it fell in the case of Jones Very, cannot the spirit parse and spell?”
Essays and Poems was Very’s only book. It was as if the spiritual work he’d described in his essay on Hamlet—“contending in thought with the great realities beyond it”—was too draining to maintain. After 1840, he drifted apart from most of his former Concord friends and supporters and settled into a quiet domestic life he would maintain in Salem for the next forty years. He spent his time, to cite part of Gittleman’s perhaps exaggeratedly tepid account, “reading pious tracts and sentimental stories; writing more than a hundred tedious sermons … muttering about the large Catholic church erected on the lot adjoining his house … examining ancient tombstones in out-of-the-way cemeteries and studying old documents for traces of his ancestors.”
He had accused Emerson of spiritual coolness, but it was the less volatile Emerson who kept up decades of more or less undimmed literary and intellectual effort. Emerson continued to worry over Very, of whom he included an admiring, almost awed sketch in his 1841 essay “Friendship.” To him Very was troublingly immoderate, unforgiving, and rigid in his thoughts. But he had also gone very far in “giving” himself “to himself,” in seeing the movements of the godlike spirit Emerson had argued every individual conducted. Emerson might have wondered, once Very had left public life, what moderating reservation or qualifying point in the Divinity School address the younger man had missed.
Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1, Film Comment, and Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.
Previous entries in Prison Lit:
- Lady Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners
- John Cleland, Fanny Hill
- François Villon, The Testament; Paul Verlaine, Romances sans paroles and Sagesse; Gregory Corso, Gasoline and The Vestal Lady on Brattle; Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
- Austin Reed, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict
- Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
- Christopher Smart, “Jubilate Agno”; John Clare, “Child Harold”
- George Jackson, Soledad Brother
- Madame Roland, The Private Memoirs
- Abdellatif Laâbi, The Reign of Barbarism and Le livre imprévu
- Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
- John Bunyan, Grace Abounding; Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House