August 28, 2013

Birth of Jones Very: Flee to the mountains

Jones Very was born August 28, 1813 to two unmarried first cousins, the oldest of what would become six children. His father, also named Jones Very, was a sea captain, and his mother Lydia was an outspoken atheist who believed marriage was a personal moral obligation which did not need any legal recognition. At 10, young Jones Very took his first sea voyage with his father, sailing to Russia; he served as a cabin boy a year later to New Orleans (his father did not survive the return trip).

As a teenager, Very became the breadwinner for the family, serving at an auction house and as a teaching assistant to a principal in his native Salem, Massachusetts. It was in this period that Very began studying religion deeply, offsetting his mother's atheism. It was also in his home town's newspaper that he first began publishing poetry. After graduating from Harvard, he enrolled in the Divinity School there but never graduated. He became known for his enthusiasm for literature and his engaging conversational style (which seemed to disappear when he was in larger groups). Ralph Waldo Emerson brought him into his circle and inspired him with his Transcendentalist philosophies. But then Very went insane.

He had become a bit eccentric over the years, deeply moved by his beliefs in God. In the summer of 1838, while tutoring Harvard students, he suddenly called out, "Flee to the mountains, for the end of all things is at hand!" He had a "nervous collapse" was fired from his job. He returned to Salem, where he told people he was the "Second Coming" of Christ and offered to baptize people "with "the Holy Ghost and with Fire," including his neighbor and fellow Transcendentalist Elizabeth Peabody. Bronson Alcott was impressed by the fervor of the young man and noted, "He is insane with God — diswitted in the contemplation of the holiness of Divinity." A local minister finally had him committed in an insane asylum. The superintendent determined Very's condition was due to digestive problems.

In fact, Very believed his role as a prophet would last only twelve months. After that period, he calmed down considerably and became reclusive, living with family in Salem, while occasionally serving as a guest minister. He lived a quiet and uneventful life until his death in 1880. He published one major book, with the help of Emerson (who questioned Very's claim that the Holy Spirit guided his pen as he wrote, asking, "cannot the spirit parse & spell?"), collecting his essays on William Shakespeare and his poetry (mostly sonnets), including "In Him We Live":

   Father! I bless thy name that I do live,
   And in each motion am made rich with thee,
   That when a glance is all that I can give,
   It is a kingdom's wealth if I but see;
   This stately body cannot move, save I
   Will to its nobleness my little bring;
   My voice its measured cadence will not try,
   Save I with every note consent to sing;
   I cannot raise my hands to hurt or bless,
   But I with every action must conspire;
   To show me there how little I possess,
   And yet that little more than I desire;
   May each new act my new allegiance prove,
Till in thy perfect love I ever live and move.

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