Joseph G. Kronick: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

When Whitman changed the title of "A Word Out of the Sea," which was first published as "A Child's Reminiscence," to "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," he substituted a trope of eternity for one of death. This substitution is also reflected in the change from the past participle to the present in the first line, which read "Out of the rocked cradle" in 1859. In his introduction to the reprint of the third edition, Roy Harvey Pearce argues that the change is front the sea as "a fact of life" to sea as "symbol" According to Pearce, the later version blurs the original's clear distinction between the literal experience of the boy and the metaphorical experience of the poet. Yet the role of memory in this poem, even in the earlier version, makes it difficult to maintain such a neat distinction between the literal and the figural. Experience becomes literal by virtue of notation, writing as memory trace, not by the facticity of direct experience.

The song is triggered by, among other things, "the memories of the bird that chanted to me." The bird's song, moreover, is a trope for the past. It is the phenomenalization of a childhood memory:

From the myriad thence-aroused words,

From the word stronger and more delicious than any,

From such, as now they start, the scene revisiting.

The long series of prepositional phrases culminates with the word "death," the word "more delicious than any." Yet all elements of the series, from the rocked cradle to death, are textual markers, signs out of which his poem issues:

I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and

    hereafter,

Taking all hints to use them—but swiftly leaping

    beyond them,

A reminiscence sing.

To unite the "here and hereafter," the present and the future, the poet returns to the past. This return is prompted by the signs, particularly that of death, beyond which he must leap to bring forth his memorial song. What in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" was characterized as a gap separating author and reader is here set forth as a division between the author and his future. It And in both poems, the future is located in the past. We must distinguish Whitman's reminiscence, however, from a nostalgia for lost innocence, because the future exists in and as a memory, the notation or inscription without which there can be no temporality.

Although the adult claims to transcend language, or the hints that first stir his memory, the child refuses anything of the sort. The scene to which the adult returns is presented to us as a scene of writing, a linguistic encoding of an experience by the child who absorbs and translates the bird's song. What allows the consciousness of the past to be awakened is that this consciousness exists as a memory trace, a notation. Nor is this memory one of an unmediated childhood experience: the child is a vehicle for translation.

The first song the child hears concludes, "Singing all time, minding no time, / If we two but keep together" (LG 1860, p. 271). This lie against death, as Bloom would put it, presupposes the presence of the unnamed third, the boy as translator. This poem, more than any other by Whitman, conforms to Bloom's map of poetic crossings. Taking Bloom as our Baedeker, we find the movement from the introduction to the reminiscence is the Crossing of Election, when the poet "faces the death of the creative gift." The second, the Crossing of Solipsism, occurs after the end of the love aria and recounts his "struggles with the death of love." The third and final crossing, the Crossing of Identification, which comes after the repetition of the word "death," is "the psychic act of so identifying oneself with something or someone outside the self that time seems to stand still or to roll back or forward." This is the confrontation with death.

What is at stake in Bloom's reading is the psyche of the poet, which he fears, and correctly so, I might add, is being threatened by the critical projects of de Man and Derrida. Thus, in "Out of the Cradle," the reminiscence is not strictly "a commonplace or a memory place (but) more nearly the place of a voice, the place from which the voice of the dead break through. Hence, a topos is an image of voice or of speech, or the place where such an image is stored. The movement from topos to topos, the crossing, is always a crisis." The crossing that concerns Bloom is that between speech and writing. or topos and trope. In one of his characteristic sleight-of-hand tricks, Bloom defines the rhetoric of tropes as ethos, "the Greek word for 'custom,' 'image,' 'trait,' (which) goes back to a root meaning 'self.' " Rhetoric of persuasion he defines as pathos, "the Greek for 'passion,' (which) goes back to a root meaning to 'suffer.'" The aporia that falls between them is logos.

Bloom not only returns to rhetoric the fully humanistic concepts of self and passion but in a polemical spirit, attributes this formulation to de Man. Finally, he characterizes the crossing in the Romantic crisis-poem as

what intervenes as the crisis-point in each of the three pairs, that is, at the point where a figuration of ethos or Limitation yields to a figuration of pathos or Representation. I think that there are only two fundamental tropes, tropes of action and tropes of desire. Tropes of ethos are the language of what Emerson and Stevens call "poverty," of imaginative need, of powerlessness and necessity, but also of action, incident, and character. Tropes of pathos are the language of desire, possession, and power. In poetry, a trope of action is always an irony, until it is further reduced to metonymy and metaphor; whereas a trope of imaginative desire always begins as a synecdoche, until it is further expanded to hyperbole and metalepsis, the trope that reverses temporality.

I quote this lengthy passage because it reveals how his dialectic moves toward a union that denies not temporality, and a linear temporality at that, but irony, that which threatens representation, the psyche, and the linear temporality upon which Bloom's genealogy of poets depends. The dialectic between ethos and pathos takes place at each of the three crossings, but he significantly drops any mention of an aporia and substitutes identification, which has its beginning in synecdoche. In other words, he opposes Coleridgean symbolism to de Manian allegory .Whatever Bloom may say about misreadings, his theory always asserts that reading is possible; that is, language allows the mediation between consciousnesses and between mind and world. The crisis, for Bloom, is the self-created abyss that opens up between the psyche and the object of desire. The abyss, furthermore, is necessary for the continuity of Bloom's genealogy because it is the place where the poet transumes his precursors and thereby transforms the abyss, or aporia, into a logos, or an image of voice.

Bloom's theory of crossings may well have been derived from Whitman's "Out of the Cradle," just as his concept of the anxiety of influence appears to be directly indebted to Emerson, particularly the Emerson of "Self-Reliance" and "The American Scholar," but not the Emerson of "Quotation and Originality." Let us, therefore, return to the child, whom we left listening to the bird's song. The trope here is, once again, prosopopoeia, which appears to confirm the song as an image of voice. Furthermore, there can be no question of the boy's identification with the bird. What, therefore, is the nature of this identification ? For Bloom, the relation must be a dialectical one between the singers and the poet. The song, however, denies the presence of a listener, for the denial of time depends strictly upon the birds' mutual fulfillment of desire for one another. The poet, consequently, is an intruder, a third element that does not dialectically subsume the two; he disrupts their harmony. As the translator, he gives voice not to the birds but, as the introduction makes clear, to his memory of them, making the song a memory of place and not a place of voice. And since the song is a reminiscence, a function of memory, we can conclude that it owes its appearance to its pastness, not to a fictive present. It has existence only as a memory of words, as notation.

The continuity of the song does not depend on the fulfillment of desire; it depends on the absent object of desire, an absence already "present" before the disappearance of the she-bird. Thus, the boy's role does not change; he continues as translator: "Listened, to keep, to sing—now translating the notes, / Following you, my brother" (LG 1860, p. 272).

The boy, however, is not the only translator in the poem; there is also the mockingbird. In " A Word Out of the Sea," "imitation" means not representation but repetition. Throughout the course of his lament, the he-bird warns its mate not to confuse the voice of the sea with his own or asks the "husky-voiced sea" to cease so his own voice can be heard. The opposition between the voices, the bird's and the sea's, equates the absence out of which poetry emerges with the word out of the sea, which is "death." Thus, the sea at once drowns out the voice of the bird, echoes it, and answers it. All three modes of response are a translation of the bird's song; both sea and bird speak the word "death," the word out of which language begins. The bird sings to the sea, "Murmur! Murmur on! / O murmurs—You yourselves make me continue to sing, / know not why" (LG 1860, p. 274). Whitman later canceled these lines, possibly because he wished to obscure the semiosis that makes the bird's, the sea's, and the boy's songs all intertranslations and replace it with a more schematic opposition between the sea and the bird. Yet he kept these lines (except for the final two words):

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.

The trio of bird, sea, and boy all echo the "undertone," the "secret hissing" of the word "death." Perhaps Whitman's decision to call himself simply a "bard" instead of the "bard of love" was a repressing of the union between love and death. Nevertheless, it is the echoing of the songs in the boy's soul that calls him forth as the bard.

This awakening to his calling, however, is another of Whitman ' s retrospective recapitulations of his genesis. But into this triad he inserts a fourth, the adult who is also a translator:

Bird! (then said the boy's Soul,)

Is it indeed toward your mate you sing ? or is it

    mostly to me?

For I that was a child, my tongue' s use sleeping,

Now that 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, more sorrowful than yours,

A thousand warbling echoes have started to live

    within me,

Never to die.

It becomes increasingly uncertain at this point who speaks: is it the boy, his soul or the adult? The moment of hearing appears to be the moment of writing, for it is only in the recapitulation that he hears the bird. Experience is an a posteriori reconstruction that does not make the past present to consciousness but projects it into the future: "O you demon, singing by yourself—projecting me, O solitary me, listening—never more shall I cease imitating, perpetuating you" (LG 1860, p. 276): Whereas in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the poet projects himself into the future, here language, in the form of the bird's song, projects him. Projection, furthermore, is the trope of metalepsis, for it allows the a posteriori reconstruction of the past to appear as the past and, hence, creates the fiction of genealogy, for what the song awakens in him is yet to be fulfilled. The adult will go on "imitating" (Whitman later canceled this word) and thereby, "perpetuating" the bird's song.

The bird's projection of him and his perpetuating of the bird appear at first to be homologous. The bird's song awakens him to his calling, which he realizes in the future, and he reaches back into the past and perpetuates the bird's song, thus guaranteeing it an afterlife. The process, however, is that of translation, which exchanges not writer's poetry for bird's lament but present for past. The present exists in the mind as a memory without an object. For the song, he writes, will

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.

According to Bloom, this moment of crisis where the poet questions his identity as poet has its fulfillment in the answer, the word whispered by the sea—"death." But death can never be what Bloom calls a topos, an image of voice, for it resists representation. "The word final, superior to all" is a trope—prosopopoeia, to be more precise; When he asks of the sea, "Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?" he gives not an image to the voice but a face, a figure, instead. Whereas image requires some relationship between the figural and the literal—it is, in other words, a representation—prosopopoeia is a trope operating in a system of translation.

In the final stanza, the song of death enters into this system:

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, awakened 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.

Memory functions as translation, a fusing together of all songs into one, that of death. This poem of poetic calling does not end in the denial of time that Bloom's theory requires. The place where the voice breaks through is always already the past. We might even say that because the present exists as a memory , the voice is only heard as an echo, a repetition that is belatedly characterized as having already been experienced. Finally, the orderly process of translation breaks down as the songs "awakened from that hour" are coexistent with "the word up from the waves," the word "The sea whispered me." The Me Myself is a trope for death. Whitman's tropes of song, sea, and death are, in view of his master trope, metonymy, all images of writing. What Whitman promised in "Song of Myself" to reveal as "the origin of all poems" proves to be memory , the perpetuating of song as a translation without boundaries.

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Criticism Overview
Title Joseph G. Kronick: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joseph G. Kronick Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetics of History: From Emerson to the Moderns
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