Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Emerson insists in his writings that it is only the spiritual world which is “real”; the material world is simply an illusion, created by human senses, that must eventually be transcended. He frequently used one segment of the world (as did Henry David Thoreau, who learned the method from him) as a microcosm of the universe as a whole, believing that if one could but understand all of one aspect of the reality, one would have a clear entry into understanding the whole.

Another central Emersonian theme is implied in this poem, one that has to do with the relationship between people and nature: Physical nature can be a mirror to reflect back to humankind the spiritual facts which lie behind and inform all physical facts. Shadow and sunlight, for example, can reveal that they are inescapable parts of one phenomenon and thus one spiritual reality. Just as a person may come to realize that shadow is only the absence of light, so may one come to realize that evil is only the absence of good.

Other central themes in Emerson’s work are reflected in this poem: the idea of compensation, for example, which shows that there is a principle of balance in the universe, since for everything that is given, something is taken away, and vice versa. In the whole (or spiritual) sense, nothing is ever lost. There is also a commentary on the nature of experience, which Emerson saw—in a metaphor which he used in several works—as being like beads strung on...

(The entire section is 449 words.)