Clark Davis, “Very, Garrison, Thoreau: Variations on the Antebellum Passive” (pp. 332–359)
This essay contends that the poetry of Jones Very, often considered predominately “mystical,” was deeply engaged in political debates of the era. Not only did Very often write poems with an avowedly public purpose, but his seemingly otherworldly, spiritual sonnets sometimes participated in antebellum political debates. The sonnet “The Hand and Foot” (1839), for instance, describes a mode of Christian passivity and quietism that echoes the contemporaneous call for passive “non-resistance” to slavery found in William Lloyd Garrison’s 1838 “Declaration of Sentiments,” the foundational statement of the New England Non-Resistance Society. Very’s poem also describes a mode of Christian behavior that is radically disruptive of social conformity, a kind of embodied “prayer” that may have influenced Henry David Thoreau’s more famous manifesto of passive resistance, “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). Thoreau witnessed Very’s passive but disruptive behavior on more than one occasion in Concord, Massachusetts, well before his own unique dramatization of nonconformity in the mid 1840s. Comparing Very’s erasure of individual will to Thoreau’s more canny deployment of passivity can help us clarify antebellum modes of passive engagement as they evolved toward the eventual violence of John Brown’s raid and the American Civil War.