Jones Very’s "Soul-Sickness"

Updated on April 4, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Jones Very

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Soul-Sickness"

Jones Very's dedication to pluming the spiritual level of being was intense and at times landed him in trouble with his peers. But that intensity guided him to write his spiritual masterpieces. He remains an under-appreciated poet.

Jones Very's poem, "Soul-Sickness," is an Elizabethan (Shakepearean or English) sonnet, featuring the traditional quatrains and couple along with the traditional rime-scheme that frame all Shakespearean sonnets: ABAB CECE EFEF GG.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Soul-Sickness

How many of the body's health complain,
When they some deeper malady conceal;
Some unrest of the soul, some secret pain,
Which thus its presence doth to them reveal.

Vain would we seek, by the physician's aid,
A name for this soul-sickness e'er to find;
A remedy for health and strength decayed,
Whose cause and cure are wholly of the mind

To higher nature is the soul allied,
And restless seeks its being's Source to know;
Finding not health nor strength in aught beside;
How often vainly sought in things below,

Whether in sunny clime, or sacred stream,
Or plant of wondrous powers of which we dream!

Commentary

First Quatrain: Deeper Than the Physical Encasement

How many of the body's health complain,
When they some deeper malady conceal;
Some unrest of the soul, some secret pain,
Which thus its presence doth to them reveal.

The speaker observes that humanity continues to grumble about its physical well-being, when in reality the problem is psychological, not physical. A restive soul suffers from "some secret pain" of which even the sufferer is unaware.

By targeting the problem, the speaker seeks to then search for the remedy. He assumes that he may better be able to heal whatever he can isolate and possible name.

Second Quatrain: When It's All In Your Head

Vain would we seek, by the physician's aid,
A name for this soul-sickness e'er to find;
A remedy for health and strength decayed,
Whose cause and cure are wholly of the mind

The speaker then plainly avers that despite seeking help from a physician, the human sufferer will find that he trouble that resides in the mind and thus because the root cause of that difficulty and its eventual "cure" reside solely in the mind, any physical remedy will not cure the sufferer.

Third Quatrain: The Vain Search for Soul Awareness

To higher nature is the soul allied,
And restless seeks its being's Source to know;
Finding not health nor strength in aught beside;
How often vainly sought in things below,

The speaker reveals that the soul is, in fact, bound to the human beings' "higher nature"; and that means that nothing on the earth, physical plane can assuage its pain. One looks in vain for soul satisfaction on the material level of being.

The physical body remains just a vehicle or an outer garment that the soul wears temporarily. And when the mind grows weary of its outer garment, it search for it more permanent nature.

Couplet: Only Cure Is the Sacred

Whether in sunny clime, or sacred stream,
Or plant of wondrous powers of which we dream!

The dreams of humanity amount to little whether one carts one's physical encasement around from a sunny climate to an arid environment or whether one merely wishes for medicinal improvement.

The speaker has clearly staked his claim on divine healing for the body, mind, heart, and soul. He reports that only the "sacred stream" holds to cure for all levels of malady which each human being must face on a flawed and dangerous material level of being.

Biographical Sketch of Jones Very

On August 28, 1813, Jones very was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to Captain Jones Very and Lydia Very, two first cousins who never married. As a poet, Very has received scant attention, yet his poetry is now becoming widely anthologized. His works do deserve attention and appreciation for their spiritual value as well as for the finely crafted skill they demonstrate.

Very's father, Captain Very, spent little time with his family, but when the younger Very was nine years old, the sea captain did take his son on a voyage to Kronborg Castle, on which Shakespeare modeled the castle of Elsinore in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. This voyage greatly influenced the young Jones Very, who later in his life would write many sonnets that are obviously inspired by the Shakespeare sonnets.

Harvard Graduate despite Poverty

Despite growing up in poverty, Jones Very was a good student and was accepted by Harvard, from which he graduated second in his class. He decided to become a Unitarian minister/poet and became engrossed in his studies. He read with great interest the poetry of the Romantics both British and German, and he became totally enthralled by the works of that great bard known as William Shakespeare.

Very enjoyed Lord Byron but for a short while, later rejecting Byron as he grew deeper in his faith. His mother had embraced atheism, a stance which Very vehemently rejected, and he could not abide even the questioning of a divine force, as he had found happening in the works of Byron.

Spiritual Transformation

Before he graduated from Harvard, Very underwent a transformation that has been variously labeled crazy and eccentric, and biographer Edwin Gittleman explains Very’s state of mind this way: "During this period he purchased his ticket to the ascetic train which was to carry him to the end of the line, the eventual obliteration of self and immersion in the will of God."

Very became so entrenched in his claims of holiness that he alienated many of those who had been his admirers. Emerson felt he had taken the basic ideals of Transcendentalism too far, and Reverend Upham had Very committed to McLean Hospital in Charlestown. He was soon released because the hospital administrators realized they could not change him, and they also insisted that he was not dangerous to himself or others.

Very and Emerson

As Walt Whitman had done, Jones Very sought assistance from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist master, who appreciated Very's unique abilities. Very enlisted Emerson's help in editing his collection of essays and poem to ready them for publication.

Although Very was reluctant to adhere to Emerson's suggestions, Emerson did, in fact, do his part in aiding the budding writer to complete his volume, which appeared under the title, Essays and Poems by Jones Very.

The volume includes Very's essays, “Shakespeare” and “Hamlet.” Emerson reviewed the collection in the Dial, but it received little attention.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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