Jones Very

MR. ANDREWS has done an excellent service in saving from oblivion the name of a man and a poet unique in his time, and singularly out of keeping with this age of worldliness.1 In 1839, a little volume of his writings, including three prose essays, Shakespeare, Hamlet, and Epic Poetry, with about sixty sonnets in the Shakespearean form and a few lyrical pieces, was published by Little & Brown, at the instance of Mr. Emerson, who took a warm personal and literary interest in the author. This collection is out of print, and has for many years been rare. The present volume does not contain the essays, but comprises twice as many poems, though still not all that Mr. Very produced. The essays would scarcely attract attention now, in the altered condition of literary estimate; many of the poems are commonplace ; some are but feeble repetitions of sentiments that had been better expressed before. One or two of those here presented to the public might have been dropped, as being tame or diluted; but the best give evidence of original power, genuine feeling, and unconscious art, if art can be said ever to be unconscious. At all events, they betray a peculiar tone of religious emotion, expressed in suitable language, always simple, often beautiful, sometimes ravishingly sweet and touching. We cannot in all cases respond to Mr. Andrews’ judgment that “ Mr. Very’s verse is absolutely composed without a thought of literary form; ” that might not be a recommendation; but we can say with him that it is characterized by “ a wholly natural spontaneity, which is almost as rare as it is conceded to be admirable.”

From the little memoir, simply, modestly, and charmingly written, without fulsome laudation, yet with loving appreciation of the author’s claims, one learns that Mr. Very was born at Salem, on the 28th of August, 1813 ; that when a boy nine years old he went to sea with his father, who was a shipmaster; that he studied at the public grammar school of his native town ; that he was an eager student, recluse, shy, introspective; that, after due preparation, in course of which he qualified himself as a tutor in Latin, he entered Harvard College in the last term of the Sophomore year, and was graduated with all but the highest rank in 1836; that he was appointed tutor in Greek, a language he excelled in, and studied theology in the Divinity School at the same time ; that he was not a popular preacher, never had a parish, never received a “ call; ” that in 1838, including some months of 1837 and 1839, — the height of the so-called Transcendental period, — he experienced a singular illumination, won the sympathies of Mr. Emerson and other leaders of that movement, and was by many regarded as a great light, by many as a candidate, along with Mr. Emerson and others, for an insane asylum ; that at the end of this crisis, during which he wrote his finest poems, he fell into obscurity, passed the remainder of his days in Salem, and died on the 8th of May, 1880. At the time the present writer knew him, ten years or so after his spiritual exaltation, he was a tall, thin man, quiet, reserved, silent, serene, who had somewhat the aspect of an extinct crater. He looked as if he belonged to another sphere. His form was angular, his movement shy, his speech simple, plain, direct. His greeting was not hearty, precisely, for it was bloodless, but gladsome, a singular smile irradiating his solemn countenance like the sudden revelation of a soul within. It came and went instantaneously, leaving no trace of its presence, betraying no hint of its origin. The man appeared and disappeared like a spectre. His poems show a deep though calm love of natural beauty. According to Mr. Andrews, his fondness for flowers was early instilled into him by his mother, for whom he cherished a very tender affection; but, as appears from his writings, his love as well for nature as for man was of an impersonal character, the love of God absorbing all other, the thought of divine manifestation alone being of interest to him. Hawthorne ascribed his limitations to a want of feeling for the ludicrous. This is apparent; but equally apparent is the absence of humor in the sense of personal sympathy with life. Thus in the two sonnets, one entitled The Slaveholder, the other The Slave, there is no allusion to the human condition of either, or to the conflict which divided the country. The reader would not suspect that any save spiritual considerations were of the smallest concern.

In the days of his fame, if fame it could be called, Mr. Very’s poems attracted the attention of a few eminent judges. Emerson spoke enthusiastically of them as “bearing the unquestionable stamp of grandeur.” “ They have the sublime unity of the Decalogue or the Code of Menu ; and if as monotonous, yet are they almost as pure, as the sounds of surrounding nature.” Mr. Bryant praised their “extraordinary grace and originality.” Mr. Richard H. Dana declared that they stood “ apart in American literature ; ” that they were “ deeply and poetically thoughtful, true in language, and complete as a whole.” Later, Mr. George W. Curtis has given as his judgment that they are “gems of purest ray serene.” And in a note to one of Emerson’s letters to Carlyle, wherein reference is made to the little volume of Very’s Essays and Poems, Mr. Charles E. Norton calls it “ the work of an exquisite spirit. Some of the poems it contains are as if written by a George Herbert who had studied Shakespeare, read Wordsworth, and lived in America.” We quote a few of the poems in order to convey an idea of their character. The following will he familiar to those acquainted with religious verse :


WILT Thou not visit me ?
The plant beside me feels thy gentle dew,
And every blade of grass I see
From thy deep earth its quickening moisture drew.
Wilt Thou not visit me ?
Thy morning calls on me with cheering tone;
And every hill and tree
Lend but one voice, — the voice of Thee alone.
Come, for I need thy love
More than the flower the dew, or grass the rain;
Come gently as thy holy dove ;
And let me in thy sight rejoice to live again.
I will not hide from them
When thy storms come, though fierce may be
their wrath,
But bow with leafy stem,
And strengthened follow on thy chosen path.
Yes, Thou wilt visit me:
Nor plant nor tree thine eye delights so well,
As, when from sin set free,
My spirit loves with thine in peace to dwell.


FATHER, I wait thy word. The sun doth stand
Beneath the mingling line of night and day,
A listening servant, waiting thy command
To roll rejoicing on its silent way;
The tongue of time abides the appointed hour,
Till on our ear its solemn warnings fall;
The heavy cloud withholds the pelting shower,
Then every drop speeds onward at thy call;
The bird reposes on the yielding bough,
With breast unswollen by the tide of song;
So does my spirit wait thy presence now
To pour thy praise in quickening life along,
Chiding with voice divine man’s lengthened sleep,
While round the Unuttered Word and Love their vigils keep.


FATHER ! thy wonders do not singly stand,
Nor far removed where feet have seldom strayed;
Around us ever lies the enchanted land,
In marvels rich to thine own sons displayed.
In finding Thee are all things round us found;
In losing Thee are all things lost beside:
Ears have we, but in vain strange voices sound,
And to our eyes the vision is denied;
We wander in a country far remote,
Mid tombs and ruined piles in death to dwell ;
Or on the records of past greatness dote,
And for a buried soul the living sell;
While on our path bewildered falls the night
That ne’er returns us to the fields of light.


FATHER! there is no change to live with Thee,
Save that in Christ I grow from day to day;
In each new word I hear, each thing I see,
I but rejoicing hasten on the way.
The morning comes with blushes overspread,
And I new-wakened find a morn within;
And in its modest dawn around me shed,
Thou hear’st the prayer and the ascending hymn.
Hour follows hour, the lengthening shades descend;
Yet they could never reach as far as me,
Did not thy love its kind protection lend,
That I, a child, might rest a while on Thee,
Till to the light restored by gentle sleep,
With new-found zeal I might thy precepts keep.

Some of the most characteristic pieces are given, in order that the reader may appreciate their spirit: —


THE night that has no star lit up by God,
The day that round men shines who still are blind,
The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod,
And sea swept over by His mighty wind, —
All these have passed away; — the melting dream
That flitted o’er the sleeper’s half-shut eye,
When touched by morning’s golden-darting beam; —
And he beholds around the earth and sky
That ever real stands, the rolling shores
And heaving billows of the boundless main,
That show, though time is past, no trace of years.
And earth restored he sees as his again,
The earth that fades not and the heavens that
Their strong foundations laid by God’s right hand.


THE light will never open sightless eyes,
It comes to those who willingly would see;
And every object — hill, and stream, and skies —
Rejoice within th’ encircling line to be.
’T is day, — the field is filled with busy hands,
The shop resounds with noisy workmen’s din,
The traveler with his staff already stands
His yet unmeasured journey to begin;
The light breaks gently, too, within the breast, —
Yet there no eye awaits the crimson morn,
The forge and noisy anvil are at rest,
Nor men nor oxen tread the fields of corn,
Nor pilgrim lifts his staff, — it is no day
To those who find on earth their place to stay.


THE fairest day that ever yet has shone
Will be when thou the day within shalt see;
The fairest rose that ever yet has blown,
When thou the flower thou lookest on shalt be.
But thou art far away among Time’s toys;
Thyself the day thou lookest for in them,
Thyself the flower that now thine eye enjoys,
But wilted now thou hang’st upon thy stem.
The bird thou hearest on the budding tree,
Thou hast made sing with thy forgotten, voice;
But when it swells again to melody,
The song is thine in which thou wilt rejoice;
And thou new risen ’midst these wonders live,
That now to them dost all thy substance give.


THE words that come unuttered by the breath,
Looks without eyes, these lighten all the globe ;
They are the ministering angels, sent where Death
Has walked the earth so long in seraph’s robe;
See crowding to their touch the groping blind!
And ears long shut to sound are bent to hear;
Quick as they speak the lame new vigor find,
And language to the dumb man’s lips is near;
Hail, sent to us, ye servants of high heaven!
Unseen, save by the humble and the poor;
To them glad tidings have your voices given ;
For them their faith has wrought the wished-for cure;
And ever shall they witness hear of you,
That He who sent you forth to heal was true.


I SEE them, — crowd on crowd they walk the earth,
Dry leafless trees no autumn wind laid bare;
And in their nakedness find cause for mirth,
And all unclad would winter’s rudeness dare;
No sap doth through their clattering branches flow,
Whence springing leaves and blossoms bright appear;
Their hearts the living God have ceased to know
Who gives the spring-time to th' expectant year.
They mimic life, as if from Him to steal
His glow of health to paint the livid cheek ;
They borrow words for thoughts they cannot feel,
That with a seeming heart their tongue may speak;
And in their show of life more dead they live
Than those that to the earth with many tears they


THERE is no worship now: the idol stands
Within the Spirit’s holy resting-place!
Millions before it bend with upraised hands,
And with their gifts God’s purer shrine disgrace.
The prophet walks unhonored ’mid the crowd
That to the idol’s temple daily throng;
His voice unheard above their voices loud,
His strength too feeble ’gainst the torrent strong;
But there are bounds that ocean’s rage can stay
When wave on wave leaps madly to the shore:
And soon the prophet’s word shall men obey,
And hushed to peace the billows cease to roar;
For He who spake, and warring winds kept peace,
Commands again, and man’s wild passions cease.

Half a dozen poems should be copied to show Mr. Very’s fine feeling for natural beauty : —


THE bubbling brook doth leap when I come by,
Because my feet find measure with its call;
The birds know when the friend they love is nigh,
For I am known to them, both great and small;
The flowers that on the lovely hill-side grow
Expect me there when Spring their bloom has given;
And many a tree and bush my wanderings know,
And e’en the clouds and silent stars of heaven:
For he who with his Maker walks aright
Shall be their lord, as Adam was before;
His ear shall catch each sound with new delight,
Each object wear the dress which then it wore;
And he, as when erect in soul he stood,
Hear from his Father’s lips that all is good.


THE rain comes down, it comes without our call;
Each pattering drop knows well its destined place,
And soon the fields whereon the blessings fall
Shall change their frosty look for Spring’s sweet face;
So fall the words thy Holy Spirit sends,
Upon the heart where Winter’s robe is flung;
They shall go forth as certain of their ends,
As the wet drops from out thy vapors wrung:
Spring will not tarry, though more late its rose
Shall bud and bloom upon the sinful heart;
Yet when it buds, forever there it blows,
And hears no Winter bid its bloom depart;
It strengthens with his storms, and grows more bright
When o’er the earth is cast his mantle white.


THOU need’st not rest: the shining spheres are thine
That roll perpetual on their silent way,
And Thou dost breathe in me a voice divine,
That tells more sure of thine eternal sway;
Thine the first starting of the early leaf,
The gathering green, the changing autumn hue;
To Thee the world’s long years are but as brief
As the fresh tints that Spring will soon renew.
Thou needest not man’s little life of years,
Save that he gather wisdom from them all;
That in thy fear he lose all other fears,
And in thy calling heed no other call.
Then shall he be thy child to know thy care,
And in thy glorious Self the eternal Sabbath share.


THOU tellest truths unspoken yet by man,
Bv this thy lonely home and modest look;
For he has not the eyes such truths to scan,
Nor learns to read from such a lowly book.
With him it is not life firm-fixed to grow
Beneath the outspreading oaks and rising pines,
Content this humble lot of thine to know,
The nearest neighbor of the creeping vines;
Without fixed root he cannot trust, like thee,
The rain will know the appointed hour to fall,
But fears lest sun or shower may hurtful be,
And would delay or speed them with his call;
Nor trust like thee when wintry winds blow cold,
Whose shrinking form the withered leaves enfold.


THE sweet-briar rose has not a form more fair,
Nor are its hues more beauteous than thine own,
Sabbatia, flower most beautiful and rare!
In lonely spots blooming unseen, unknown.
So spiritual thy look, thy stem so light,
Thou seemest not from the dark earth to grow;
But to belong to heavenly regions bright,
Where night comes not, nor blasts of winter blow.
To me thou art a pure, ideal flower,
So delicate that mortal touch might mar;
Not born, like other flowers, of sun and shower,
But wandering from thy native home afar
To lead our thoughts to some serener clime,
Beyond the shadows and the storms of time.


STAY where thou art, thou need’st not further go,
The flower with me is pleading at thy feet;
The clouds, the silken clouds, above me flow,
And fresh the breezes come thy cheek to greet.
Why hasten on; — hast thou a fairer home?
Has God more richly blest the world than here,
That thou in haste would’st from thy country roam,
Favored by even-month that fills the year?
Sweet showers shall on thee here, as there, descend ;
The sun salute thy morn and gild thy eve:
Come, tarry here, for Nature is thy friend,
And we an arbor for ourselves will weave;
And many a pilgrim, journeying on as thou,
Will grateful bless its shade, and list the wind-struck bough.


THE leaves, though thick, are falling: one by one
Decayed they drop from off their parent tree;
Their work with Autumn’s latest day is done, —
Thou seest them borne upon the breezes free.
They lie strewn here and there, their many dyes
That yesterday so caught thy passing eye;
Soiled by the rain each leaf neglected lies,
Upon the path where now thou hurriest by.
Yet think thee not their beauteous tints less fair
Than when they hung so gayly o’er thy head;
But rather find thee eyes, and look thee there
Where now thy feet so heedless o’er them tread,
And thou shalt see, where wasting now they lie,
The unseen hues of immortality.

These poems sufficiently express the quality of Mr. Very’s production. He was unique and peculiar. His vein was narrow, but deep. He had not the piercing insight of Emerson, the keen observation of Bryant, the warm human sympathy of Longfellow, the artistic feeling of Lowell, or the hilarity of Holmes. But he possessed a profound sense of the reality of divine things as symbolized in nature. He had but one thought, that of the immanence of God. He had but one emotion, a desire that the Spirit might be witnessed and confessed. He had but one interest, that men should turn their eyes towards the light. He was a mystic, but not of the German type ; more Christian than Emerson, rather Greek than Latin in the style of his devoutness. To read him is like reading Vaughan.

In estimating Mr. Very’s poetry, so much depends on an understanding of his spiritual mood that we venture to borrow a passage or two from Mr. Emerson’s diary as throwing light upon this point. On October 26, 1838, he records, —

“Jones Very came hither two days since. His position accuses society as much as society names that false and morbid. And much of his discourse concerning society, church, and college was absolutely just.

“ He says it is with him a day of hate, that he discerns the bad element in every person whom he meets, which repels him ; he even shrinks a little to give the hand, that sign of receiving. The institutions, the cities which men have built the world over, look to him like a huge ink-blot. His only guard in going to see men is that he goes to do them good, else they would injure him spiritually. He lives in the sight that he who made him made the things he sees. He would as soon embrace a black Egyptian mummy as Socrates. He would obey, — obey. He is not disposed to attack religions or charities, though false. The bruised reed he would not break, smoking flax not quench.

“ He had the manners of a man, — one, that is, to whom life was more than meat. He felt it, he said, an honor to wash his face, being, as it was, the temple of the Spirit.

“In the woods, he said to me, ‘ One might forget here that the world was desert and empty, and all the people wicked.’

“ What led him to study Shakespeare was the fact that all young men say, Shakespeare was no saint; yet see what Genius. He wished to solve that problem. When he was asked, What was the difference between wisdom and genius ? he replied, ‘ Wisdom was of God,’ — but he had left genius, and could not speak of it. He was pressed further, and said, ‘ Genius was the decay of Wisdom.’ He added, ' To the preexistent Shakespeare Wisdom was offered : but he did not accept it, and so he died away into Genius. When his vineyard was given him, God looked that he should bring forth grapes, but he brought forth sour grapes.’ ‘But,’ said the interrogator, ‘my grapes tasted sweet.’ He replied, ‘ That was because you knew not the sweet. All things are sweet, until there comes a sweeter.’

“ His words were loaded with his fact. What he said, he held, was not personal to him ; was no more disputable than the shining of yonder sun, or the blowing of this south wind.”

“ He prized his verses, he said, not because they were his, but because they were not.”

In September, 1838, Very writes to Emerson: —

“ I am glad at last to be able to transmit what has been told me of Shakespeare ; ’t is but the faint echo of that which speaks to you now. . . . You hear not mine own words, but the teachings of the Holy Ghost. . . . My friend, I tell you these things as they are told me, and hope soon for a day or two of leisure, when I may speak to you face to face as I now write.”

These poems can hardly be popular in an age like ours, — an age fond of change, diversion, variety, amusement, color ; an age of external decoration, averse to meditation, inclined to criticise rather than to believe. But there must be many devout souls who will welcome this beautiful volume with delight, as expressing lofty thoughts in musical phrase.

  1. Poems. By JONES VERY. With an Introductory Memoir by WILLIAM P. ANDREWS. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1883.