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...
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