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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Each and All” consists primarily of four-stress couplets. The poem’s fairly regular rhythm and rhymes, some people feel, are supposed to imitate the patterns Emerson claims to find in nature. According to this theory, the fact that the poem contains some lines that are written in an abab pattern, one line (ending with “shore”) that rhymes only with lines separated from it by a number of lines, and one line (ending with “ground”) that rhymes with no other line—as well as the poem’s having an odd number of lines—indicates that the symmetry Emerson finds in nature is not exact.

Most readers of the poem see it as being divided into three parts. The first consists of four images or episodes followed by a conclusion about all things needing other things (lines 1-12). The second consists of three more images or episodes (lines 13-36). In the final part, the poet arrives at a conclusion about the earlier material, only to discover that his conclusion is incorrect (lines 37-51).

Critics often accuse Emerson of being more interested in nature as an idea than in nature itself. Thus, critics say, his writing about nature tends to be rather vague. Although “Each and All” contains several images drawn from human interaction with other humans, such as the episodes involving the “clown,” Napoleon, and the wife, the poem is for the most part dependent on imagery drawn from nature. Emerson deals with several specific parts...

(The entire section is 462 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Bosco, Ronald A., and Joel Myerson, eds. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982.