Bettina L. Knapp: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

Autobiographical in content and operatic in structure, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," inspired by Whitman’s walks on the Long Island beach, begins with an overture/introduction, followed by a long act divided into sequences of arias and recitatives.

The curtains part in the spring: in the fifth month, as the Quakers referred to the month of May. Nature in awakening. The stage is set.

Up from the mystic play of shadows twining as if they

    were alive....

From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,

From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings

    I heard....

From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the

    mist….

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.

As the narrator regresses and scenes drawn from his lonely childhood pass in review, he seems to take on two personalities: "A man, yet by these tears a little boy again" (18). The mature bard, the poem's author, progressively flooded by the emerging image of the boy he once was, lives out two identities.

With utmost maternal solicitude (emphasized by clusters of dependent phrases and clauses identified with the referrent "I" [20, 29, etc.]) the fatherly man seeks to console the sensitive and deeply distressed little boy. In so doing, he may believe he can help him cope with his misfortune. Distinctions between youth and old age give rise to particularly poignant moments -- sometimes as obscure projections, in other instances as strong imagings.

The mature poet now resurrects a specific sequence in his past: he sees himself as a "curious boy" who has just discovered some mockingbirds nesting nearby. Although intent upon peering into their secret world, he is very careful not to disturb the family's joyous harmony:

And their nest, 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 crouch'd on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,

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

Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating. (27)

The mockingbird is soon to become the focus of the drama enacted.

The clarity and lyrical quality of Whitman's verbal tones, as these resound in the following lines, shed an atmosphere of foreboding and distress. So intense is the bird's melodious interlude, ranging as it does from highs to lows, so gripping are the images accompanying its performance, that it may be viewed as a poetic transliteration of an aria from La Favorita, which Whitman heard in New York City performed by the contralto Marietta Alboni. The continuation of the mockingbird's warblings and threnodies might also have been inspired by and paralleled to the passionate tones of the famous tenor Allesandro Bettini, singing the male lead in the same opera. About him Whitman wrote:

His voice has often affected me to tears. Its clear, firm, wonderfully exalting notes, filling and expanding away; dwelling like a poised lark up in heaven; have made my very soul tremble. --Critics talk of others who are more perfectly artistical. But the singing of this man has breathing blood within it; the living soul, of which the lower stage they call art, is but the shell and the sham. (Holloway, Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, I, 257)

That Whitman's mockingbird took on human dimensions is not surprising, given the number of allegorical birds appearing in religious as well as in literary texts throughout the centuries: the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Horus), the Ramayana (Garuda), the Koran (Ababil), and Attar's Conference of the Birds (Simorgh), the Song of Solomon, not to mention the writings of such poets as Robert Browning ("Home-thoughts, from Abroad"), Emily Dickinson ("No ladder needs the bird.... "), Alfred Lord Tennyson (The Eagle"), and Alfred de Musset ("May Night"). The latter's depictions of the allegorical pelican, a personification of the suffering and alienated poet, whose sorrows are transformed into food by the creative individual, may be regarded to a certain extent as a precursor of Whitman's stanzas.

As the focus of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" changes, the father mockingbird and his family take center stage. His joyful aria now rings with masculine bravura, confident as he is in a life that has brought him thrilling and unending romance.

Shine! Shine! Shine!

 

Pour down yourwarmth, great sun!

While we bask, we two together. (32)

Naively, the father bird rhapsodizes over his mate in glowing sonorities -- over their eternal passion for one another and the beauty of their young love.

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 the time, minding no time,

While we two keep together. (35)

Soon we learn in the recitative that fate has stricken its blow -- cruelly, incisively, and without warning. The she-bird has vanished. The crash of breaking waves accompanies the revelation of the event; their hissing sounds, reverberating in the distance, preludes the blackness of night enclothing an atmosphere of doom. The rising moon's soft glow has a calming effect on the raging undulations of the ocean, but only for a moment, after which they break out more formidably than before: "the hoarse surging of the sea" (48). The sibilants in the just-quoted line underscore the bird's sorrow and its rage over life's unwarranted cruelty.

The boy, identifying with the bird's lamentations, is encapsulated in the drama. His loss of identity mystifies him; his loss of self-control wipes away the rest of the world from his focus. Wrapped in silence, he listens to the bird's threnodies, which are now his own. Gone are his former childlike excitement, his bounding energy, his carefree ways. Deeply sensitive, he feels into the bird's mourning cries: "Blow! Blow! blow!" it warbles, apostrophizing the wind, begging it to blow his mate back to him (52). Night descends, the most painful of hours, finding the bird alone on the dunes, still intoning his cry of despair.

Transfixed, the boy listens in silence to the rhythms of the pounding waves, which once had -- but no longer -- a cradling effect on him, like a mother rocking and cradling her baby in her ocean-uterus. Has the seemingly endless body of water now become an ocean-coffin? The bird continues his vocalizations in true Romantic style, allowing his feelings, but only momentarily, to be lured into the pleasures of past times, into the oblivion of the water's now lulling effect.

Soothe! soothe! soothe!

Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,

And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close,

But my love soothes not me, not me. (71)

The drama intensifies as harsh sounds again burst forth, paralleling the crashing noise made by the "slapping waves." Every shadow the bird sees in the distance, every form, every decoy, and breaker tossing its spray, raises his hope of finding his mate. "Loud! loud! loud! / Loud I call to you, my love" (81).

Because he is no longer blind to the dualities of life, both torment and joy are imbricated on his verbal palette. Not one without the other. His art, he assures himself, will enable him to meld pain and happiness into the poetic process. In a touching and loving apostrophe to the bird, he says:

O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me,

O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating

    you .... (150)

The raw experiences of life, the mature poet has learned, must now be transformed into the work of art: the personal crises and the original sensations that had stirred both the young boy and the mature man must now be impersonalized. To verbalize feeling involves discipline, vision, and the ability to formalize the informal.

Only now is the presence and message of the "savage old mother" clarified for the mature poet.

Lisp'd to me the low and delicious word death,

And again, death, death, death, death,

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

But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,

Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,

Death, death, death, death, death. (168)

As previously suggested, the archetypal mother/ocean figure is identified with the unconscious. So demanding a parent may she have become that her impact on her son may have taken on "savage" proportions. In Whitman's case, his great attachment to his mother had transformed a positive into a negative power. Indeed, he even sought to play the "mother" to her, helping her financially and emotionally to care for his siblings. So incapable was he of breaking away from her that he never succeeded in cutting the umbilicus. For the poet and man, such attachment spelled death!

The poem's macabre soundings of incessant waves fiercely crashing are metaphors for the heaving pulsations emanating from Whitman's subliminal spheres, endlessly spelling out the same message. Whitman has succeeded in imbricating his invasive conflictual emotions into the work of art.

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,

(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet

    garments, bending aside,)

The sea whisper'd me. (178)

No longer only a threatening power at the poem’s conclusion, the immortal mother/ocean has become a wondrously comforting force, a nurturer of life. She, who had brought the bard into the world, had also been the one to have stirred his poetic voice. Now she invites the poet to awaken to a new world. Strengthened by his newfound inner harmony, he finds himself able to compose his message of faith in his creative powers.

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Criticism Overview
Title Bettina L. Knapp: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bettina L. Knapp Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Walt Whitman
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