During the course of his long poetic career, Jones Very wrote some 870 separate poems, many of them published in newspapers and magazines of his day, but only 65 appearing in the thin volume edited by Emerson in 1839. It is common for biographers and literary critics to separate the poems written by Very during his period of growing religious excitement in the late 1830’s from the largely imitative poems written before that period and the competent but not strikingly intense poems written in the four decades after that period. It is the poetry of the so-called ecstatic period that most interested and challenged the Transcendentalists and has continued to impress readers in the various generations since. Although repetitious in themes and format, the sonnets from the religiously intense phase of Very’s experience carry a certain power and originality markedly lacking in the poetry written before and after this period.
Poems of spiritual intensity
During the late 1830’s, poems poured from Very’s pen, sometimes, according to Peabody, at the rate of one or two a day. Very, convinced that his will had been totally replaced by the will of divinity, believed that these sonnets were in essence not authored by him but rather were the words of God or the Holy Spirit. Written rapidly, seemingly without revision (how could one revise the words of God?), with little attention to formalities such as spelling and punctuation, the poems of this phase have presented serious editorial issues to editors from Emerson to the present. Yet, the lack of formality and polish helps to bring immediacy to the poems, the best of which seem particularly forceful in their expression of religious passion.
“The New Birth,” a sonnet that seemingly recalls Very’s intense feelings of change as a result of the key mystical experience in the fall of 1838 when he became convinced of the subjugation of his own will, nicely illustrates the power of Very’s poetry during this period. The poem begins with the announcement that “’Tis a new life,” followed by a vivid figure of how “thoughts” no longer “move” as before, “With slow uncertain steps,” but now “In thronging haste” like “the viewless wind” (a traditional biblical image for the Holy Spirit) enter “fast pressing” through “The portals.” Such a change has resulted because human “pride” (the will) has been “laid” in the “dust.” The thoughts demand “utterance strong” (perhaps the writing of poetry as well as the face-to-face confrontation with teachers and friends), imaged as the sound of “Storm-lifted waves swift rushing to the shore” whose “thunders roar” “through the cave-worn rocks.” The poem ends with the speaker in the poem ecstatically announcing as “a child of God” his new freedom, his awakening from “death’s slumbers to eternity.”
Most of the other sonnets written during this period of high religious feeling center on the traditional Christian themes of death, rebirth, the Second Coming, resurrection, and hope, often with figures and allusions highly dependent on biblical sources. Not all of them are successful, often being little more than paraphrases of Scripture.
However, some of them are very striking, perhaps the most interesting to modern readers being those poems in which the poet or the speaker in the poem assumes the voice of God or Christ, poems so stunningly transcendental in their linkage of humanity to divinity that they were not for the most part included by Emerson in the little volume published in 1839, perhaps because he feared the probable attacks of conservative Christians. For example, Christ seems to be the speaker in “I Am the Bread of Life,” while God seems the central voice in “The Message.” Even more complicated is a poem such as “Terror,” which centers on the end of the world. The poem begins with the speaker as a seemingly human witness to end-time events: “Within the streets I hear no...
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