Second only to "Song of Myself" in amount of critical attention received since its publication, "Out of the Cradle" brings together in one simple narrative many of the seminal themes and emotions making up the context of Whitman's poetics: love, death, sexuality, loss, and their relation to language and expression.
The scholarly tradition has interpreted "Out of the Cradle" generally as a dramatization of the poet's apprehension of death and the fundamental originary poetic inspiration it generates. The boy falls from innocence into mortality and self-consciousness (the clearest symptom of which is language) and then recounts the story of his separation from nature, hoping that narration will grant him a sense of control over or at least some palliating understanding of his catastrophe. "Out of the Cradle," then, is Whitman's Romantic crisis poem, his "Tintern Abbey," "Mont Blanc," or, in its bare essentials, "Fort! Da!," the common narrative thread being the speaker's rumination upon loss or death and the compensation, not recovery, provided by poetic utterance.
The problem with this interpretation is that it presupposes a primal time of innocence, a state of mind in which the child experiences his surroundings with an unmediated vision, before cultural impositions (or Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents) fetter his consciousness and exile him from an unconscious participation in the world. The child "beholds God and nature face to face" (Emerson), sees the world in its "ever-early candor" (Stevens), has an infallible, innate "Realometer" (Thoreau) guiding his thought. The world is transparent and the young mind is intuitive. Nature represents itself openly to hearts ready to receive it without interpreting it.
Such a scheme may be useful in studying certain aspects of Romantic nature poetry, but it does not apply to "Out of the Cradle," for in Whitman's poem nature is from the very beginning a meaningful text and the boy is a probing and detached exegete. The opening verse paragraph describes the boy wandering across "the sterile sands, and the fields beyond" in explicitly semiotic terms: there are "mystic play of shadows," "memories of the bird," "beginning notes of sickness and love, there in the transparent mist," "the myriad thence-aroused words," and "the word stronger and more delicious than any." Even to a child's vision, nature is a "mystic play," a melody "transparent" but "misty," an "aroused" language calling out for interpretation, beckoning the boy to reciprocate with a corresponding natural language.
Appropriately, the boy (and the reminiscing poet), "Taking all hints to use them--but swiftly leaping beyond them" (l. 21), is eager to penetrate the text, to follow the "hints" to their transcendent source. As he listens to the mockingbirds singing in the sky, instead of joining with them in their hymn of love, the "curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them," sits in the shadows "Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating" (ll. 30-31). He reads and rewrites the birds' songs, "translating" first their harmonious domestic chant and then the "he-bird's" elegaic call for his lost mate into printed, italicized English. (The bird's "words" make up almost half the poem; the poet's words function as a kind of commentary upon the conditions surrounding his "translation.") The original song, then, is not a pure self-identical, nonsemantic, Orphic outburst of feeling: the "notes" contain "meanings which I, of all men, know" (l. 60). If the song were not representational, if it did not have a memorial signified "behind" it, then the boy could not translate it. There would be no common meaning or reference to give words to; the song would have to remain in its "mocking-bird" tongue or be distorted by the boy's foreign language.
What validates the boy's translation is the fact that the bird's song is also a translation and not an original, unique eruption of feeling. As a "mocking-bird" (noted in line 2), the "solitary guest from Alabama" (l. 51) imitates "arias" already sung and arrogates for himself the instinctive cries of other birds. He is a "messenger" (l. 156). (Whitman uses this term in 1867; originally the line read "dusky demon.") Just as the boy questions him, "Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it mostly to me?" (l. 145) and then recasts the songs as his own individual lament, so the "mocking-bird" borrows others' calls to express his particular sorrow. The "musical shuttles" (l. 2) from absent, unknown, original singer to forlorn, mimicking, "sad brother" (l. 9), the "mockingbird," then to the "curious boy" "now translating the notes" (l. 69) to the aged poet, "chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter" (l. 20), who finally renders it to the reader. Whitman places himself, the boy he was, and the bird that inspired him in a chain of interpretations without an absolute beginning or end.
In allegorizing the causes and materials beyond the poet that nevertheless shape the poetry and the impending rereadings that will reshape it, Whitman surrenders to the linguistic play that diffuses his authority and undermines his originality, the crisis he struggled so long to ward off. He frees his language from any determinate source and destination, gives up the search for a natural language of the self, and accepts "the gaiety of language" (Stevens) and "unlimited semiosis" (Peirce), even though he knows such conclusions will explode his poetics. The sign will not stay put, he now admits, which means that his Orphic dream has ended.
This is why, in "Out of the Cradle," the beginning of poetry coincides with the realization of death. At first, after hearing (and simultaneously rendering) the bird's incantatory, phrenetic "aria," the boy is swept up in a sublime sonic abandonment.
The boy extatic--with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere
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.
The "sands," the "waves," the "atmosphere," and "the notes of the wondrous bird" conspire to free the boy's "pent" "love" and to "deposit" in his "ears" and "Soul" the meaning, "the undertone," the "drowned secret" couched in the phenomena of nature and the longings of humanity. They form a "colloquy there . . . each uttering," enrapturing the boy's "heart," tuning his "ears" to the Logos, and schooling his "Soul" in the ways of oracular pronouncement.
Assuming their organic idiom, the boy becomes the "outsetting bard of love," his body and soul coordinated, all social constraints abolished:
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 life within me, never to die.
(ll. 146-49; Whitman later made the first two lines into one.)
Hearkening to the "he-bird's" desperate cry for his "lost mate" whose fate lies hidden in the tantalizing yet imperturbable "sea" (the other member of the "trio," along with the boy and the bird), the boy suddenly finds poetic energies "starting to life within" him. With unchildlike defensiveness--"I know what I am for"--he relinquishes his passive innocence, leaves behind "the peaceful child [he] was" (l. 154), and welcomes his inevitable "destiny"--to become a spirit dedicated to poetry, singing lithe cries of unsatisfied love" (l. 153).
The poetic sounds reverberating in the boy's soul, however, are not to be confused with the "live feeling" Whitman eulogizes in his notebooks and prose. Whereas pure poetry erupts spontaneously from the heart, the boy's interior language derives from an external origin. Composed of "a thousand warbling echoes," it is an anthropomorphic translation of the mockingbird's song, which is itself an echo. Though the boy boasts that his songs are "clearer, louder, more sorrowful"' than the bird's, in the next verse paragraph he promises to be faithful to his precursor, claiming that his future will be little more than a repetition of the latter's present: "O you demon, singing by yourself--projecting me, / O solitary me, listening--never more shall I cease imitating, perpetuating you" (ll. 150-51).
The newborn poet is a "project[ion]" and an "imitat[ion]," a channel-like medium "listening" to the "demon's" "reckless, despairing carols" (l. 104) and "perpetuating" (perpetuus, "to pass through") them. Though the boy, not merely a disengaged transmitter of the bird's lament, is passionately immersed in the music he renders--he sheds "strange tears" (l. 139) and feels "the fire, the sweet hell within" (l. 156)--still, that music is not entirely proper and unique to him and his wayward feelings. Notwithstanding its irregular transformation by consecutive auditors, the song precedes and succeeds each momentary "vocalization," survives beyond each individual articulation. Instead of having a local genesis and structure centered upon the "Personal Magnetism" (NUPM, I, 271) of the bird-boy-poet, the word is a universal, endlessly iterable "meaning," the very precondition and constitutive element of poetic identity.
"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is not so much a dramatic poem staging the activation of Whitman's innate poetic genius as it is a "reminiscence" describing his conscious entry into reading and writing, discourse and interpretation. The boy is interpolated into a particular semiotic order, a vocal chain of signifiers bound together, in this case, by a common emotive signified, "lonesome love" (l. 101). Recognizing the temporal origin and destiny of his utterance, Whitman joins the procession of singer-signmakers, knowing that others will follow and "translate" his words just as he has "translated" his "brother's" "notes." The boy's singular version of the bird's lament, therefore, is less a spontaneous outburst of love springing from his awakened heart than it is a transient permutation of elegaic narrative. But it would be a mistake simply to discount the former, to say that Whitman, in introducing temporality, semiosis, and interpretation into his poetry, reduces his individual compositions to mere reiterations of conventional forms and themes.
An oversimplistic structural interpretation, by reading Whitman's poem as the discrete parole of a master narrative pattern or as the ideological construct of a cultural code, not only overlooks "Out of the Cradle's" peculiarity and Whitmanian-ness, its difference from other elegies, and neglects its pivotal place in the poet's canon and career. It also fails to account for what motivates the boy to adopt a hermeneutical posture toward nature in the first place. Semiotics focuses on structure, not semantics, on how a sign refers, not on what a sign means; but "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" has as its subject matter a middle ground between structure and meaning. That is to say, at the center of the poem is not a meaning or a sign but rather the tension between the two, the mercurial space and time dividing and defining them as such. More precisely, Whitman's poem is structured by (or is an outgrowth of) the conflict generated by (and generating) contrary suppositions about the nature of meaning--that is, meaning conceived of as an animating intention or feeling and meaning conceived of as an antecedent or consequent sign.
This is the fundamental opposition of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." The boy's dilemma epitomizes the poet's: How can Whitman enunciate feelings of love and pain and longing without using an anterior form and style and without yielding his feelings up to posterior interpretations? The boy turns to the bird's song as a natural medium organically continuous with feeling, yet how does Whitman characterize his lament? First, it is a translation, a secondhand rendition of another's music. Second, it must be retranslated. After adapting the song to his own private needs, the mockingbird passes it along to the "bareheaded, barefoot" (l. 14), uncultivated child who rephrases it in human terms. (The mockingbird's fidelity to the original call and the boy's disingenuousness do not make their translations "pure," for the transformations undergone by the emotive "content" during the substitution of signifiers are not entirely due to the biases of the translators. Substitution has its own effects.) Third, and most important for the conclusion of the poem, the song is ineffective. Though the boy (and generations of readers) finds the song a poignant and beautiful articulation of a universal affliction, the song fails to achieve its specific purpose--to return the "she-bird" to her lover. It provides neither knowledge nor comfort. It neither reveals the cause of her disappearance nor does it appease the anguish debilitating the "he-bird," "the lone singer" (l. 58) who, at the end, realizes that he is "singing uselessly all the night" (l. 124).
The "aria" is "useless" not because the "he-bird" lacks any innate Orphic powers. His voice seems to possess the same qualities of "timbre" and "modulation," to reach an equal range and pathos, that "The Perfect Human Voice" (Taylor, the opera singer Bettini, Hicks, and so on) does. Like the sometimes bardic, sometimes furtive, but always affecting voice in "Song of Myself," the "he-bird" moves from direct, commanding entreaty--"High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves, / Surely you must know who is here, / You must know who I am my love" (ll. 83-85)--to quieter, hypnotic, humlike tones--"Soft! Let me just mutmur,. . . With this just-sustained note I announce myself to you, / This gentle call is for you my love" (ll.106, 113-14). It is the song that fails, not the singer. It is the language itself that prevents the bird from recuperating the obscure lost object of desire. As a derivative utterance, the bird's song makes present only the anterior language it represents. The lost object and the feelings bound up with it exist beyond the order of signs and hence remain dark and unreachable.
Singing brings about more songs, not an end of singing, which a recuperation would accomplish. Though the "two guests from Alabama" (l. 26) sang to each other before the catastrophe, the last line in their duet ("If we two but keep together," l. 40) indicates that their inspiration is not so much their happiness in being together as it is their fear of imminent separation. Having resorted to words for satisfaction, for a restoration of domestic unity, the "he-bird" condemns himself to an endless retelling of his tragedy: "Murmur! Murmur on! / O murmurs--you yourselves make me continue to sing, I know not why" (lines later deleted; they originally followed line 124 after a space). Now it is the "murmuring," not the underlying feelings, that incites him to sing. Once articulation has taken the place of pure, undifferentiated feeling, one can never return to the simplicity of primitive, instinctual action and perception. The thing itself remains mediated and desire is eternalized. Intended for solace, the bird's song turns into a never-ending, self-defeating strategy bringing no physical or "metaphysical comfort."
Of course, the idea of a preinterpretive innocence or a prelapserian childhood golden age is a myth, a fictional memory constructed from the nostalgic perspective of self-conscious language users. As we have seen, even in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" mediation and semiosis are effectively at work in the boy, the birds, and nature from the very beginning. Nature unveils to the boy the semiotic nature of life, the fact that he lives in a world of interpretations and translations, a world in which meaning and truth and feeling and reality lie hidden or, more precisely, are a fugitive function of their ever-present yet insubstantial representatives. The boy must decide whether to become a willing participant in "unlimited semiosis" or to struggle futilely against it, to accept the temporal, revisionary character of his utterance or to try to stabilize and consecrate it, to forestall interpretation and halt the semiotic mutations his poems will suffer.
As we have seen, most of the time Whitman's poetics embrace the latter hope. Whitman's poet-figure manifests the authority and allure and veracity necessary to arrest interpretation--"The presence of the great poet conquers--not parlaying, or struggling or prepared attempts" (PW II, 438)--or at least to confine semiosis to a straight and true passage of feeling from one soul to another. Ideally, Leaves of Grass acts as a spirited transparent medium organically grounded in the inarticulate speech of the heart. Because it already accords with feeling, it need not be comprehended. In this way, feeling-presence is preserved, and Whitman's unique experience stays permanently fixed as the central force guiding readers' understanding.
"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" subverts this conception of poetry and poets. The communicative model Whitman sets up in the poem belies the notion of original, heart-centered poetry insusceptible to interpretation. Exchanges of feeling rely upon an undeniably semiotic process that prevents any individual from mastering the writerly-readerly effects such exchanges are subject to. It may be objected that the poem's conclusion does, in fact, postulate an end to or a controlling center of discourse, of composition and interpretation, but actually the opposite is the case. Presumably, what overrides or circumscribes signification would be a nonsign, a "transcendental signified" that, although governing the play of signifiers, would remain apart from and unaffected by the game it regulates. But at the end of the poem, the boy asks for and receives "some clew" (l. 158), a "vapor, a look, a song," not a thing in itself, a loving comrade, a mystical truth, or anything else that would answer his longing and end his song of desire and loss:
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?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands? (ll. 160-64)
Though "final, superior to all," "the key, the word up from the waves" (l. 179) is still a word, a message that must be "whispered" and "listened" to. In asking for a sign and not a presence, the boy resists the vanity and fruitlessness of trying to penetrate the essence of nature and instead acknowledges the inevitable prevalence of mediation. And the "sea-waves," instead of unveiling a "transcendental signified" that would organize and delimit the anxiety-causing play of semiosis--"O I fear it is henceforth chaos!" (this phrase was later deleted)--and disclose to the boy his "destination," can proffer only an empty signifier, an enigmatic name devoid of any fixed meaning or reference:
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. (ll. 165-73)
What critical language can adequately explain these lines, which address themselves to (if not transgress) the boundaries of sense and draw an occult connection between language and death? To interpret the sea's blank, peremptory iteration of "the low and delicious word death" solely as the boy's awakening to mortality and to the ever-impending loss of love and security is to ignore the poem's sustained and profound problematizing of meaning and expression. "Whispering" and "lisping" its repetitive language of annihilation, "hissing melodious" a "rustling," "creeping" monotone signifying nothing, the "sea" uncovers the semiotic impasse created by the boy's having subjected feelings to a signifying order. By disrupting the unmediated plenitude of auto-affection and introducing the exterior sign into the soul, or, more accurately, by realizing the sign's paradoxical interiority in all human experiences from the very beginning (the "beginning" being a fictional afterthought), the boy admits a gap into intuition and expression and suspends indefinitely the reappropriation of purified feeling.
Death is the name for this marginal void. Death can only be understood as the absence of its original, life, as body without spirit, form without content, sign without intention. "Death" is the signifier par excellence, the sign signifying signification itself. It is neither a thing nor an event, but rather a term loaded with insignificance, a name for that noncause that makes meaning and expression possible.
"Death, Death, Death, Death, Death"--the forever penultimate iteration, the unbridled repetition determining and de-terminating Whitman's poetry. It is the "fitful risings and fallings" (l. 9), the "echoes" and "reverberations" (ll. 149 and 152) randomly measuring out his verse and prolonging it, opening it to citation and mimicry, forestalling any final settlement upon a meaning, an intention, a feeling, a truth. Iteration determines the term, disseminates its content across a structural field, diffuses it into a past and a future that has no termination.
Lest this movement be confused with the antipoetic or the antihuman, we must remember that iteration (or "death") is poetry. Not simply an absolute interruption but more graphically a pulsating, rhythmic, signifying indication of thinking and feeling and speaking, "death" is indeed the corporate life of poetry. After hearing the sea whisper its sonorous, mystical, "low and delicious" litany, Whitman recalls, "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" (ll. 178-80). "Death" marks "the beginning of [his] great career," the substance of which is "the thousand responsive songs [sung] at random" (l. 177), without any determinate, meaning-full origin or destination. Though a beginning, however, "death" is not a fixed identity or presence. It is an evanescent boundary, a liminal dividing line between now and then, or, in the context of the poem, between text and pre-text. Hence, "Death" is also an end, a posterior boundary reified when Leaves of Grass is yielded up to the negating action of interpretation, when Whitman's songs take their turn as pre-texts for subsequent poems or, even worse, criticism. In other words, what Whitman realizes at the conclusion of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is his liability to the mortal effects of the sign, to the derivational quality of all utterance, and to the displacing, sequential pattern of interpretation.