The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Each and All” is usually treated as one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s best nature poems. It seems to have developed from a journal passage Emerson recorded in 1834 about recalling seeing seashells on the shore when he was a boy. He picked some up and took them home. When he got them there and looked at them, they appeared “dry and ugly.” From that episode, he said in the journal passage, he learned that what he called “Composition”—things in arrangement with other things—was more important than the beauty of anything alone in terms of its effect on the viewer.

The poem recounts the process through which the first-person narrator, who seems to be a version of Emerson himself, becomes aware of “the perfect whole.” It begins with the observation that “yon red-cloaked clown,” apparently a man standing in a field, does not think about the observer looking at him, nor does the heifer think of the person who hears it lowing. It then refers to a sexton ringing his church bell without thinking of Napoleon listening. Emerson is alluding to Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France from 1804 to 1815, about whom Emerson wrote an essay in his book Representative Men (1850). Emerson had read that Napoleon paused whenever he heard the bell of a parish church because, Napoleon himself said, the sound reminded him of a period from his youth when he was happy. In “Each and All,” the narrator speaks of Napoleon stopping his horse while his armies march through the Alps. Napoleon listens to the church bells ringing even though the sexton who rings them is unaware that he is there. From these episodes, the narrator concludes that one cannot know how one’s life influences other people’s lives and...

(The entire section is 705 words.)