Jones Very was born on August 28, 1813, in Salem, Massachusetts. He enrolled in Harvard University as a sophomore in 1834, where he was praised for his prose work, winning the Bowdoin Prize for his essays two years in a row—the first Harvard student to ever do so. He also published a number of poems in the Salem Observer, Knickerbocker, and Harvard’s student literary magazine, Harvardiana.
After graduating in 1836, Very became a Greek tutor at Harvard and continued to study at the Divinity School. Very’s critical essays caught the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1838, which sparked a close but difficult friendship between the two, with Emerson encouraging Very’s literary pursuits and Very attempting to convert Emerson to his religious beliefs.
Very, through Emerson, became involved with the Transcendentalists, and his increasing fixation on mysticism and spirituality began to attract notice among his peers. By the fall of 1838, Very’s students began noticing his lessons becoming more and more directed toward matters of morality. In September of that year, Very proclaimed to his students that they should “flee to the mountains, for the end of all things is at hand,” and made speeches to various groups at the college claiming that the Holy Spirit was speaking through him. The following day Very was sent to the McLean Asylum in Charlestown, where he would be kept for one month.
Emerson, who was initially only aware of Very’s prose work, became a champion of Very’s poetry, helping him to publish more of it and editing poems for Very’s Essays and Poems (C. C. Little and J. Brown, 1839).
Very’s early work reflected the influence of English romantic poets like William Wordsworth and was often written in long blank verse. However, his later work was primarily written in the form of the Shakespearean sonnet. His poems frequently return to the theme of spirituality and sometimes assume the voice of God or the Holy Spirit.
In 1840, no longer suffering from his religious fervor, Very returned to his family home in Salem. He became licensed as a Unitarian minister three years later and continued to preach and write in the subsequent years, though the quality and quantity of his work had waned. He died on May 8, 1880, in Salem.
Essays and Poems (C. C. Little and J. Brown, 1839)