Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406
Emerson's primary concern in this poem is with the relationship between beauty and truth, in the context of nature. Specifically, he wishes to make the reader aware, using illustrations from his own experiences, that things may seem beautiful in one context, but when removed from that context they may no longer seem so. This is because, he says, everything is interdependent in the world, even if we—and the heifer, and the sexton, and others—are not conscious of this at all times. Emerson's view is that
All are needed by each one;
Nothing is fair or good alone.
In Emerson's view, then, none of us know how far our lives have contributed to those of others. Even without thinking, we contribute to a "perfect whole" alongside other people and things around us; if even one thing is removed from this whole, it might no longer be the same.
Emerson's illustrations drive home this idea. Connecting with his comment towards the end of the poem that a desire for pure beauty is born of "unripe childhood," the first two illustrations show rather childish impulses. In the first, the speaker recalls bringing home a bird's nest because he enjoyed the bird's song so much. In the second, he remembers seeing some particularly beautiful seashells on the shore and bringing them home to admire, only to find that they were no longer pleasing to him:
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore
The speaker's experiences have brought him to a firm resolution, which is central to the resolution of the poem.
I covet truth;
Beauty is unripe childhood's cheat;
I leave it behind with the games of youth:
Seeking to capture a beautiful thing, then, is not "truth." The reason beautiful things no longer look beautiful outside of their context is because they are no longer true to themselves. They no longer incorporate all the other elements which contributed to the perfection of the picture, such as the sky, the wind, the river, the sounds, and so on. In the end, the speaker has learned—and wants the reader to learn—that the only way to truly appreciate nature and the world around us is to enjoy it as it is, enjoying each moment in its proper context, and thus taking what joy we can from each "perfect whole."