The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

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 climaxes the work. A visionary poet in the tradition of William Blake, Kenneth Rexroth has stated, “Poetry is vision, the pure act of sensual communion and contemplation.”

Adhering to the doctrine of correspondences taught by the mystic Böhme, the poet evokes nature as emblematic of spiritual realities. The laurel tree symbolizes expiation and eternity as well as victory and triumph. The oak, rooted in the graves of Indians, connotes endurance; sacred to Zeus, it represents the essence of divine power. Such imagery infuses the poem with a sense of rebirth. The clearest metaphor of renewal is left for last: the rotten log that the poet transforms into kindling fuel.

The setting of July, the height of summer, implies growth and maturity. The poet, at “forty summers,” is ripe for the mystical rebirth of his sensual awareness and creative power, which he experiences in the course of the poem. The context of these awakenings is described in the imagery of illumination: the owl’s eyes “glow”; the meadow is “bright as snow”; creatures appear in the “blur of brightness” and “cobwebbed light”; scattered wood chips are “ingots/ Of quivering phosphorescence.”

The poet conjures these sacramental images in familiar language. The unrhymed measured lines—ranging from eight syllables each in the first part of the poem to seven in the last two—convey the intimacy of conversation. Rexroth called this syllabic form “natural numbers,” saying that it allowed him to emphasize the “natural cadences of speech.”