Jones Very was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1813 to a sea captain father and a strong-minded, highly independent, and somewhat atheistic mother. Very sailed with his father for nearly two years, beginning at age nine, but after his father’s untimely death in 1824, Very attended school in Salem for three years, excelling as a scholar, until at age fourteen he left for employment in an auction room. He refused to give up his goal of enrolling at Harvard, however, and continued his self-education through extensive reading, eventually obtaining the help of a special tutor as well as securing employment as an assistant in a Latin school, preparing younger boys for entrance into college. During this time, his earliest, rather imitative poems began appearing in a local newspaper, the Salem Observer.
So advanced was Very in his scholarly ability that he was able to enter Harvard in February, 1834, as a second-term sophomore. His years at Harvard were crucial in Very’s progress as a scholar, poet, and religious thinker. He distinguished himself as a student, eventually graduating second in his class in 1836 with particular expertise in Latin and Greek. He continued to write poetry, including the class songs for his sophomore and senior years, as well as poems imitative of William Wordsworth and William Cullen Bryant.
Most important, however, under the influence of some of his Unitarian teachers and classmates, he began to turn to religion in a serious way for the first time in his life, thus deviating radically from his mother’s skepticism. Particularly in his senior year, he experienced what he called “a change of heart,” becoming convinced “that all we have belongs to God and that we ought to have no will of our own.” During the next two years, while staying on at Harvard as a tutor in Greek and a student at the Divinity School, he gave himself to the struggle of ridding himself of his own will and becoming perfectly conformed to the will of God working within him. His poetry writing...
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