Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The primary character in this poem is the unnamed speaker, who may be assumed to be Emerson himself. The speaker is a lover of nature, who has often felt himself captivated by a beautiful thing. In this poem, however, he expresses his commitment to understanding nature's beauty in a different way. While in days gone past he has felt drawn to take home things he thought worth preserving—such as a bird whose singing appealed to him, or sea shells which appeared particularly lovely on the shore—he has now come to realize that these things are disappointing when removed from their context. He has recognized that seeing things in their proper context as part of a "perfect whole" is the only way to see the "truth" of them, and it is in this truth that their beauty actually lies. Therefore, removing things from their context eradicates their beauty because it is dependent on so many other factors—nothing is "good alone."
In conveying his message, the speaker does refer to several other characters, albeit none in any great depth. He mentions a sexton (someone who maintains church yards) and Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor, in passing. Also mentioned in the story is a "red-cloaked clown," presumably a traveler, and a heifer in a field.
In slightly more depth, he also describes a young couple. The man in the couple is besotted by his "graceful maid" when she is still a virgin and therefore seems a "fairy" to him. He sees her as something ethereal, rather than simply a person. However, when she comes to him as his wife, he changes his opinion of her; the "enchantment" has lifted. While she is still "gentle" and good, his perspective has changed. He has removed the beautiful thing he sought from its original context, and therefore it—she—is no longer quite the same as she was once perceived.