Belief  /  Book Review

The Voice of Unfiltered Spirit

In the poetry of Jones Very, whom his contemporaries considered “eccentric” and “mad," the self is detached from everything by an intoxicated egoism.

Unlike Whitman or Dickinson, writers influenced by Emerson’s notion that a poem possesses an architecture of its own, Very remained a tightly formalist poet. “Very’s Holy Ghost speaks in meter and rhyme and follows many of the standard conventions of the English sonnet,” Davis aptly notes. And he suggestively observes that “at least part of his attraction to the form was its ability to constrain or bound his unruly emotions.” Unfortunately, though, this constraint can flatten the poetry, which too frequently offers more in the way of spiritual hectoring or declamation than sustenance. In “The Promise,” Very speaks as the Holy Ghost: “And witness that by me the power is lent/That wakes the dead.” Emerson also omitted that one from Essays and Poems.

Quoting from Very’s “I Am the Way”—“I am the light/By which thou travelest on to meet thy God”—Davis asserts that Very nonetheless pushes the Emersonian notion of a sublime, godlike self to the limit, raising “the deeper questions posed by his absolutist and apocalyptic vision.” That is, Very’s poetry “allows for no ordinary reality, no individual as such, only the remnant, a sort of placeholder for what the self once was.” The self disappears into an intoxicated egoism, detached from everything and everyone. As such, Davis declares, Very’s “‘madness,’ such as it was, can stand simply and purely as an emblem of the pursuit of spirit to its mysterious and estranging conclusions.” To Davis, then, Very was after something in his poetry that he vaguely calls “stillness.” Alluding to one of Very’s prize-winning college essays and his celebration of a poetry that moves toward a “state of being where its thought is action, its word power,” Davis maintains that for Very “the only kind of heroism possible, indeed the only true form of action, is stillness…an internal stillness,” which Davis defines as an abstemious shedding of all desire, an “emptying-out of the self.”

To Davis as well as to Gittleman, Very was thus intending to create a “modern epic of inwardness” or, as Davis describes it, a “nodal point where the fullest development of romantic individualism meets one of the earliest expressions of modern isolation.” In this sense, Very becomes Emerson’s Transcendentalist incarnate, the solitary nonconformist, repelled by vulgarity and frivolity, who shuns general society and walks alone. But cut off from others and locked in his own head, he also portends “modern isolation and emptiness,” Davis declares. In insisting “that he alone had relinquished all trace of his personal being…Very had ironically condemned himself to a form of living death.”