Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

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For many readers, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is Walt Whitman's most moving poem. "Song of Myself" has the copious breadth of epic in a democratic world, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" registers the somber meaning of Abraham Lincoln's death, and the Drum Taps poems catch the reality of war in impressionistic snapshots. But in "Out of the Cradle," Whitman (1819–1892) dramatizes the bare fact of mortality and achieves the profound expressiveness of high art. From its first utterance, when in late 1859 Whitman read the poem to his bohemian friends at Pfaff's saloon in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, to the famed evening at Edith Wharton's home, "The Mount," when Henry James (1811–1882) read "Out of the Cradle" (and other Whitman poems) in a voice that "filled the hushed room like an organ adagio," to the scene in the film Doc Hollywood (1991) in which the aging physician regales dinner guests with an inebriated rendition of the poem, "Out of the Cradle" has stood as Whitman's signal feat of lyricism. It is a tour de force of poetic talent and worldly vision.

The poem entered Leaves of Grass in the third edition (1860) under the title "A Word out of the Sea." Along with other compositions from the same period, "Out of the Cradle" marked a new disposition for Whitman. These works impart despair and doubt instead of boisterous affirmation of nature and humanity. Critics speculate on whether the change was due to a failed love affair, to turmoil over Whitman's homo-erotic feelings, to the course of the nation toward civil war, or to the insufficient adulation prompted by the first editions of Leaves of Grass. But whatever the reason, the shift is marked. In "I Sit and Look Out," Whitman remarks "upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame," but has no reply: "all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent" (pp. 328–329). In "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," the desolation turns upon the poet himself:

As I wend to the shores I know not, 
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck'd . . .
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash'd up drift,
A few sands and dead leaves to gather.

(Pp. 319–320)

The bardic expansiveness of 1855 has contracted, and defeatist wisdom takes its place.

"Out of the Cradle" shares in the pessimism but without the self-recrimination and bitterness. Despite its obsession with death and loss, at the time of its publication it inspired as much acclaim as it did censure. When Henry Clapp (1814–1875) heard Whitman recite it in Pfaff 's saloon, he decided to publish it (under the title "A Child's Reminiscence") in the 1859 Christmas number of the literary periodical he edited, the Saturday Press. When the poem was attacked in the Cincinnati Commercial as "lines of stupid and meaningless twaddle" by "that unclean cub of the wilderness, Walt Whitman," Clapp defended the poem in a subsequent number of the Press and proceeded to print several of the new poems that would end up in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Indeed, Clapp's efforts probably inspired Thayer & Eldridge, Boston publishers, to propose the new edition in a letter dated 10 February 1860.

The opening lines of the poem quickly show why "Out of the Cradle" has proven so affecting. The first verse paragraph runs for twenty-two lines, a single sentence with twenty prepositional phrases, the grammatical subject ("I") buried in the twentieth line, and the epic verb "sing" placed as the very last word. (All citations here are from the final version of the poem.) To sustain the sentence through so many meandering phrases—"Down from the shower'd halo, / Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as they were alive" (p. 343), and so forth—Whitman fills it with musical cadences and sounds as well as effusive parallelisms. For instance, the opening line, "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking," balances two dactyls and two trochees, and after the "I" come two portentous qualifiers, "chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter" (p. 344). Whitman also implants tantalizing hints in the opening that will be explained only at the end: "From the memories of the bird that chanted to me," "From the word stronger and more delicious than any" (pp. 343–344).

The vatic power of the opening mirrors the depth of theme. The poet recalls a scene from his youth, when all summer long he observed two birds with their nest and eggs until one disappeared, igniting in the child an apprehension of death and awakening his poetic self. Once the preamble sets the scene, the poem shifts into a fanciful narrative set among the briars on the seashore of Long Island. "Two feather'd guests from Alabama" have flown north for the summer to mate, while Whitman, "a curious boy," watches them unobtrusively and translates their mockingbird calls into operatic speech (p. 344). (The bird's words appear in italics in the poem.)

Shine! Shine! Shine! 
Pour down your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together.
Two together!
(Pp. 344–345)

But then, Whitman continues, the "she-bird" disappears. The "he-bird" flies back and forth, calling to the air, but the nest remains empty. The young boy listens carefully to "the lone singer wonderful causing tears" (p. 345), blending with the shadows to heed his grief. He registers the bird's cries as a set of apostrophes to nature pleading for the return of his beloved. To the moon he asks, "What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow? / O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!" To the night: "O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers?" (p. 346). And to the land:

Land! Land! O land!
Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever wayI look.

(P. 347)

The expression is overwrought, like the Italian opera that Whitman savored in the 1840s (and which Clapp in his defense of Whitman claimed was "the method in the construction of his songs"). But it bears a psychological truth about the habits of grief. The loss of his love leads the bird to confront a controlling presence, a being to which he might address his pain and plight. His suffering craves articulation and it needs a communicant. To what other shall he deliver his sorrow than the natural world that enclosed their days together and now seems everywhere a reminder of the she-bird's absence? Sing to it he must, even as he acknowledges his songs as "reckless despairing carols" (p. 347). If nature does not respond, he continues, perhaps he should temper his voice:

But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois'd sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen.

(Pp. 347–348)

Then again, maybe his lost mate is still living, but is just as distraught and must be guided back home: "Do not be decoy'd elsewhere, / That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice" (p. 348). With his love removed, nature becomes the reflection of his moods, sometimes appearing a benign power, sometimes an antagonist. These are the contortions of grief, but they cannot dispel the bare fact of loss and the ineffectuality of song: "And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night" (p. 348).

The song climaxes in a monotonous outcry—"Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!" (p. 348)—beyond which there is nothing more to say. But for the eavesdropping boy, the episode is a transformative experience. The bird's notes echo, the stars continue to shine and the winds to blow, but the boy is forever changed. Explaining the import of that change constitutes the remaining fifty-four lines of the poem, Whitman's most intense rumination upon the origin of his poetic identity.

The pathos of the he-bird, the breakup of this fantasized family, and the beauty and sublimity of the summer shore together affect Whitman in understandably emotional ways. The boy feels "ecstatic" as he sounds the bird's lament, much as an ancient bard does as the muse overtakes him. But something deeper happens as well, touching his ego and directing his fate.

Demon or bird! (said the boy's soul,) 
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.

(P. 348)

With adult-like decisiveness—"I know what I am for"—he leaves behind the inquisitive childhood of that fateful summer and becomes a mortal spirit dedicated to song. Realizing his "destiny," as he puts it in the next verse paragraph, Whitman now judges the bird a "messenger" bringing him a cosmic truth that would "Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was" (p. 350). He has grown into an "outsetting bard" (p. 350) immersed in the music he heard and inspired to create it anew. This is the birth of the poetic genius, dramatized as Whitman's entry into a procession of singers—the bird, the boy, the mature poet—joined in a chorus of "cries of unsatisfied love" (p. 350).

That formulation is crucial: "unsatisfied love." Simple love may lead to joyful song, but it will not carry others into the realm of primal inspiration. This is why Whitman needs a further "clew" to apprehend why the poetic impulse conquered his youthful self and why he requests it from a larger representative of nature than the he-bird.

A word then, (for I will conquer it,) 
The word final, superior to all,
Subtle, sent up—what is it?—I listen;
Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?

(P. 350)

Now initiated into the course of love and grief, Whitman may speak directly to nature, and the sea will readily respond.

Whereto answering, the sea, 
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper'd me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
Lisp'd to me the low and delicious word death.

(P. 350)

Love and death are the ingredients of inspired song. There on the moonlit beach that summer, Whitman witnessed the fundamental rhythms of life, and each thing he saw and heard became a stirring augury whose fundamental meaning was death. The birds' routine actions each day excited his curiosity, but only with the death of one of them did his passion intensify and spread into a soul-shaking intimation of an abiding reality. In the final image, the boy sits in the shallows as the water rises to his feet and creeps up to his ears, "Hissing melodious" a monotone phrase parallel to the earlier "Loved!": "Death, death, death, death, death" (pp. 350–351).

Whitman calls "death" the "word of the sweetest song and all songs" (p. 351), and he claims never to have forgotten the sea's lesson. The Thanatos theme marks "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" as a universalized elegy, a fanciful drama in which Whitman recognizes the fact of mortality. Additionally, the proposition that death is the origin of song (that is, of poetry) marks "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" as a metaphysical lyric broaching the wellsprings of art. The poignant combination of heightened lyricism and boyhood drama have provoked readers to interpret the poem in light of Whitman's biography, his psyche, his poetics, and his spiritual beliefs. That many have produced important insights into the poet's corpus and outlook testifies to the centrality and fullness of "Out of the Cradle." The note accompanying "Out of the Cradle" in the Saturday Press has proven true: "The piece will bear reading many times—perhaps, indeed, only comes forth, as from recesses, by many repetitions."

See also"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"; Death; Leaves of Grass;Lyric Poetry; "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"


Primary Work

Whitman, Walt. "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." In Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems, 3 vols., edited by Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Secondary Works

Lewis, R. W. B., ed. The Presence of Walt Whitman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: APsychological Journey. New York: New York University Press, 1968.

Whicher, Stephen. "Whitman's Awakening to Death." Studies in Romanticism 1 (1960): 173–186.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Mark Bauerlein