The Signature of All Things Analysis
by Kenneth Rexroth

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“The Signature of All Things” is divided into three parts: The first comprises thirty-two-lines; the second, twenty-five; and the third, twenty. The title of the poem derives from a book by the seventeenth century mystic Jakob Böhme, the reading of which initiates the poem. Written in the first person, the poem relates the visionary, intensely spiritual experience of the poet.

True to Böhme’s teaching that the “outward visible world with all its beings is a signature, or figure, of the inward spiritual world,” the poet begins with the image of his body “stretched bathed in the sun”; from his own physical being, the poet’s awareness radiates to his surroundings, progressively more animate: water, laurel tree, and creatures.

These creatures perform the endless cycle of birth and death: The wren “broods in her moss-domed nest”; a newt “struggles with a white moth/ Drowning in the pool.” Such observations lead the poet to recall his relationships, whether with humans—“those who have loved me”—or his natural environment—the “mountains I have climbed,” the “seas I have swum in.” These reminiscences prove redemptive; his “sin and trouble fall away/ Like Christian’s bundle.” This reference to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684) reinforces the sense of the poet’s life as a pilgrimage of love. Böhme, as the poet describes, “saw the world as streaming/ In the electrolysis of love.” Electrolysis, a chemical transformation involving dynamic currents, can serve as a purification process.

The second part of the poem finds the recumbent poet now standing “at the wood’s edge.” Following the mystic way, he has emptied himself of all preconceptions: “Watching the darkness, listening/ To the stillness.” His humility is rewarded; an owl—a symbol of wisdom—arrives and awakens him to a world brimming with light. He proceeds to an oak grove, formerly the site of an Indian village. There he comes upon a group of heifers, “Black and white, all lying down/ Quietly together.” Opposites—life and death, black and white—resolve in a tranquil scene of fruitfulness and communion.

In the final part of the poem, the poet recovers a rotten log from the bottom of a pool. Once it dries in the sun for a month—a full cycle of the moon—he chops it for kindling. Emerging late that night, after reading “saints” and “philosophers” on “the destiney of man,” the poet looks up at the “swaying island of stars,” then down at his feet, where all about him are “scattered chips/ Of pale cold light” that are “alive.” Witness to and finally active participant in the cycle of renewal, the poet forms the nexus of living worlds of light—experiencing his destiny.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In keeping with its sacramental vision, the poem abounds in natural imagery . Flora and fauna; elements of earth, air, fire, and water; senses of sight, sound, and smell—all direct the poet’s inner journey toward the epiphany that...

(The entire section is 736 words.)