Betsy Erkkila: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

"A Word Out of the Sea" ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"), which was initially published as "A Child's Reminiscence" in the Christmas issue of the New York Evening Post (December 24, 1859), was composed before "As I Ebb'd," perhaps as early as 1858. In the artistic ordering of the 1860 Leaves, however, "Out of the Cradle" comes after and appears to respond to the doubts raised by "As I Ebb'd."

The 1860 version of the poem begins abruptly: "Out of the rocked cradle." Whitman has frequently been praised for improving these lines to read in the final version: "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking." Their present-participial form and the rhythmic progression of dactyl-trochee are reminiscent of the regular and continuous rocking of the sea/cradle that is part of the poem's overall message of faith. But this message is implied rather than stated. The past tense and jolting rhythm of the initial lines, along with the third line that Whitman later deleted--"Out of the boy's mother's womb, and from the nipples of her breast"--are closer to the experience of discord, fracture, and separation that informed the 1860 version of the poem. In seeking to improve his poems artistically, Whitman frequently eliminated or toned down passages of crisis, anxiety, and doubt, giving a smoother line to the arc of his own and the nation's development than had in fact been the case. The line "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking," which became the title of the poem in 1871, is at odds with the demonic rumblings of the sea throughout the poem, whereas the 1860 title "A Word Out of the Sea" retains some of the ambiguity and dark mystery of the word that the poet receives from the sea: "Death, Death, Death, Death, Death."

"Once, Paumanok," Whitman says at the outset of his "Reminiscence," giving an American folk quality to his tale of love and loss:

When the snows had melted, and the Fifth Month

   grass was growing,

Up this sea-shore, on some briers,

Two guests from Alabama--two together,

And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with

    brown,

And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand,

And every day the she-bird, crouched on her nest,

    silent, with bright eyes,

And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,

Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

'I'he he-bird and she-bird exist in a fecund, sun-drenched, and seemingly timeless landscape of love, where they celebrate the union that sustains them against potentially divisive elements:

Shine! Shine!

Put down your warmth, great Sun!

While we bask--we two together.

 

Two together!

Winds blow South, or winds blow North,

Day come white, or night come black,

Home, or rivers and mountains from home,

Singing all time, minding no time,

If we two but keep together.

This harmonious union is broken when "May-be killed, unknown to her mate," the she-bird disappears one day, never to return. 

This story of love and loss has usually been treated as a dramatization of a personal experience.' In image and tone, the story seems to relate in particular to the Calamus poems and the homosexual love crisis that Whitman records in this sequence. If, however, we read the poem in the specificity of its historical context, we find a democratic elegy written at a time of national crisis that unites all the elements, psychosexual and political. To read the poem in relation to the division of the American Union is not to detract from its significance as a tale of love, loss, and artistic resolution but, rather, to recognize the historical roots of this elegy of dissolution in the state of the nation on the eve of the Civil War.

The poet's tale of two together is a communal idyll, projecting the democratic dream of America that fed the national imagination and spurred Whitman to pour out his own joyous carols. Local Paumanok is a grassy, spring landscape of fertility and generativity, where native American mockingbirds pass their time singing songs of love and union in a version of American pastoral. Whitman evokes their idyllic existence in the vernacular idiom of the locale, using the Quaker term Fifth Month for May, and words such as he-bird and she-bird, briers, crouched, and peering.

As birds of passage, the "two guests from Alabama" nesting on the shores of Long Island organically join North and South in a single life-rhythm. The union of he-bird and she-bird sustains them through darkness and light and in the midst of potentially disruptive winds from north and south. When the she-bird disappears, the he-bird looks southward as the source of disunion, invoking the south wind to return his mate to him. All summer long his songs are absorbed bv the curious boy:

Yes, when the stars glistened,

All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop'd stake,

Down, almost amid the slapping waves,

 

Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.

The fracture of idyllic union transforms the he-bird into a solitary singer of loss and separation. In contrast with the sun-drenched landscape of the two together, the bird is isolated in a nocturnal landscape that appears to be the site of violence and execution. No longer a communal singer of harmony and joy, the bird now comes closer to the neurosis and solipsism of one of Poe's lovelorn characters, tossing himself frantically on the grave of his beloved.

The transformation of the bird from a joyous singer of light and union to an elegiac singer of darkness and separation is similar to the transformation that Whitman himself underwent during the period of heightening schism in the nation between 1855 and 1860. In fact, Whitman points out the analogy: Into the past-tense narration from the child's perspective, he interjects the present-tense voice of the adult poet:

He called on his mate,

He poured forth the meanings which I, of all men,

    know.

Yes, my brother, I know,

The rest might not--but I have treasured every note.

What Whitman knows, he tells us, comes from both shared experience and the specter of "White arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing"--reminding us of similar visions of shipwreck and drowning in "As I Ebb'd" and other 1860 poems.

The bird's song ends on a forlorn note: "Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved!," he repeats, shifting from the present to the past tense, as he recognizes the fact of "Two together no more." As the bird's song sinks, the poet's song rises in the heart of the boy. "The aria sinking,/All else continuing," Whitman says as he links the sinking of the bird's aria with the emergence of the "outsetting bard of love" in a sequence of participial lines that moves beyond the finality of loss and death, inscribing a unitary pattern of endless process:

The boy extatic--with his bare feet the waves, with

    his hair the atmosphere dallying,

The love in the heart pent, now loose, now at last

    tumultuously bursting,

The aria's meaning, the ears, the Soul, swiftly

    depositing,

The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,

The colloquy there--the trio--each uttering,

The undertone--the savage old mother, incessantly

    crying,

To the boy's Soul's questions sullenly timing--some

    drowned secret hissing,

 

To the outsetting bard of love.

Here for the first time the "fierce old mother" the sea, whose "angry moans" have surged as a hoarse undercurrent through the poem, joins the boy and the bird to become a major character in the drama; it is she who bears the "drowned" secret suspected by the bird, sought by the boy, and translated by the poet.

Although the poem may say something about the origins of Whitman's art, the interaction between bird and boy is less an enactment of Whitman's emergence as a poet than it is a dramatization of his reemergence as a poet after his crisis of the late 1850s. If the bird projects some of Whitrnan's despairing sense of personal and national loss, the emergent poet represents the renewed dedication to his art through which Whitman attempted to overcome his crisis of faith. In the final version of the poem, the poet emerged as "the outsetting bard" not the "outsetting bard of love," but the initial line is closer to his concept of his role in 1860 as the lover and fuser of his "heated, torn, distracted" times.

But while the bird's "despairing carols" deepen the boy's awareness and release him into song, the bird's effect is not wholly positive. In the final version of the poem, the bird is addressed as "Demon or bird!," echoing Poe's similar "bird or fiend" addressed to his fateful raven. A demon can be a muse, a genius, or an inspiration, but it can also be an evil spirit, a fiend from the underworld, or a demon like Poe's raven piercing the heart with its beak. The boy's reaction to the bird suggests both senses of the term:

O throes!

O you demon, singing by yourself--projecting me,

O solitary me, listening--never more shall I cease

    imitating, perpetuating you,

Never more shall I escape,

Never more shall the reverberations,

Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent

    from me,

Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was

    before what there, in the night,

By the sea, under the yellow and sagging moon,

The dusky demon aroused--the fire, the sweet hell

    within,

The unknown want, the destiny of me.

Echoing the refrain of "The Raven"--"Nevermore"--the entire sequence has a Poesque ring. The effect of the "dusky demon"--a line Whitman later toned down to "messenger"--is in fact mixed, summed up in the paradox "sweet hell"; sweet because he arouses the flames of desire and hell because this desire can never be satisfied in the world. The distance between the peaceful child and the awakened bard of love marks the distance Whitman traveled between his own visionary songs of 1855 and the elegiac poems of 1860.

Like the poet in "As I Ebb'd," the boy wants to be more than a solitary singer of separation and fracture; he wants a further clue that will allow him to move beyond the tragic perspective of the bird:

O give me some clew!

O if I am to have so much, let me have more!

O a word! O what is my destination?

O I fear it is henceforth chaos!

O how joys, dreads, convolutions, human shapes, and

    all shapes, spring as from graves around me!

O phantoms! you cover all the land, and all the sea!

O I cannot see in the dimness whether you smile or

    frown upon me;

O vapor, a look, a word! O well-beloved!

O you dear women's and men's phantoms!

As an intense response to the prospect of dissolution and chaos, the boy's words articulate the poet's mood in 1860: They link Whitman's uncertainty about his identity and destiny as a poet with his doubts about the fate of the nation and the order of the universe. Like the vision of the land as a corpse that he evoked in his antislavery notes and that flits specterlike in and out of his verse, the passage reverses the regenerative myth that is the source of his faith in human and national destiny. The passage registers the fear of some sort of catastrophe, as joys, dreads, convolutions spring at the poet and phantoms cover land and sea. 'I'hrough the dimness, the poet cannot tell whether he is moving toward light or darkness, regeneration or chaos. In the poem's final version, Whitman deleted all but the first two lines of the boy's desperate address to the sea. The change had the effect of removing from the poem the fact of historic struggle, the sense of panic about human destiny that in 1860 was bound up with the impending dissolution of the nation.

Like the "unsaid word" sought by the poet in "Song of Myself," at the end of "Out of the Cradle" the boy seeks "the word final, superior to all." But the word the boy receives in 1860 is not, as in 1855, "form and union and plan." The word he receives is DEATH:

Answering, the sea,

Delaying not, hurrying not,

Whispered me through the night, and very plainly

    before daybreak,

Lisped to me constantly the low and delicious word

    DEATH,

And again Death--ever Death, Death, Death,

Hissing melodious, neither like the bird, nor like my aroused child's heart,

But edging near, as privately for me, rustling at

    my feet, And creeping thence steadily up to my ears,

Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.

The fivefold repetition of Death responds to the bird's plaint--"Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved!"--seeming to convey a life-affirming message of continuity and process, a message that is underlined syntactically by the passage's participial flow: answering, delaying, hurrying, hissing, edging, rustling, creeping. But from the child's point of view at least, there is still something "creepy" about Death. Like the monster-sea that overtakes Emily Dickinson on the outskirts of consciousness in "I Started Early Took My Dog," the sea that edges toward the child is not completely reassuring. Lisping and hissing, creeping and rustling like a snake, the sea's word of death is at best ambiguous.

The poem moves in the concluding sequence from past to present, returning to the adult frame of the poet. It is here that Whitman seeks to reconcile the dualities of the poem: life and death, love and loss, child and man, land and sea, sun and moon, day and night, south and north, past and present. The poet's final words are a unifying gesture, articulated in a single phrase that appears as a continuous flow out of the world of the sea and the preceding action of the poem.

Which I do not forget,

But fuse the song of two together,

That was sung to me in the moonlight on Paumanok's

    gray beach,

With the thousand responsive songs, at random,

My own songs, awaked from that hour,

And with them the key, the word up from the waves,

The word of the sweetest song, and all songs,

That strong and delicious word which, creeping to

    my feet,

The sea whispered me.

Appearing in his 1860 role as unifier and fuser, Whitman resolves artistically the problem of dissolution by yoking the song of two together, the boy's responsive songs, and the word death in a single poetic phrase that encompasses as it inscribes a compensatory rhythm of life and death, love and loss. Beneath and beyond the poem's artistic resolution we still hear the rumbling of a darker sea that floats up the sediment and debris of "As I Ebb'd." But by using an artistic rather than a chronological ordering in the 1860 Leaves, Whitman presents "Out of the Cradle" as a progression away from rather than toward the wasted shores of "As I Ebb'd."

As a response to the fact of dissolution in self and world, "Out of the Cradle" marks a turn toward the other-worldly poetics of Whitman's later period. The poet locates the source of his songs not in democratic presence, but in absence and death, in the "unsatified love" and "unknown want" that he seeks to articulate in song but that can never be fully satisfied in the social world. If the poem dramatizes Whitman's renewed dedication to his art after his crisis of faith in the late 1850s, it is a dedication that arises out of the disjunction between desire and history, between the poet's democracy of the imagination and the fact of a disintegrating world.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Betsy Erkkila: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Betsy Erkkila Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Whitman: the Political Poet
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