May 8, 2010

Death of Jones Very

Perhaps the most Transcendental of the Transcendentalists was Jones Very, a Salem, Massachusetts-born poet/prophet. He revealed to Ralph Waldo Emerson that his poems were written while he was in a sort of divine trance (which Emerson did not believe, noting that God would have helped him with his poor spelling). Then, one day while tutoring Greek at Harvard, Very began his transformation into a prophet. "Flee to the mountains," he shouted to his surprised students, "for the end of all things is at hand!"

Shortly after announcing he was the Second Coming of Christ, Very was committed to an in insane asylum. After his release, however, Very calmed down considerably, telling others that his role as a prophet was meant to be short-term only. Emerson helped him publish a book of poems and essays and Very committed himself as a relative recluse with family in Salem.

Most of the last four decades of Jones Very's life are unclear or entirely unrecorded. He died May 8, 1880 and was buried at the Old South Cemetery in what is now Peabody (pictured). Bronson Alcott wrote of him as "spectral" with a "ghostly air," but someone he was fortunate to have known.

Very's poems were mostly sonnets, including this one, "The New Birth":

'Tis a new life; — thoughts move not as they did,
With slow uncertain steps across my mind,
In thronging haste fast pressing on they bid
The portals open to the viewless wind
That comes not save when in the dust is laid
The crown of pride that gilds each mortal brow,
And from before man's vision melting fade
The heavens and earth; — their walls are falling now. —
Fast crowding on, each thought asks utterance strong;
Storm-lifted waves  swift rushing to the shore,
On from the sea they send their shouts along,
Back through the cave-worn rocks their thunders roar;
And I a child of God by Christ made free
Start from death's slumbers to Eternity.


  1. I haven't been by here in so long, but I enjoy it every time I read your posts.

    What am interesting character. Did he have any following while he was alive? Did he rise to the status of prophet in the minds of some?


  2. I haven't been able to determine how well-known he was outside of his local area - in that case, most just thought he was eccentric. There's a great story about him an Elizabeth Peabody which I hope to tell through the blog. As far as his status as poet: Rufus Griswold purposely sought out Very for his first major anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America. In a letter to Emerson (which I've read but I don't think was ever published), he says Very has the making of a "true" poet inside him.

    Welcome back, by the way! :)

  3. Intriguing entry--I had never heard of this guy! And thanks for the follow-up info, via Michele's comment.