John Vernon: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

I am thinking of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." To remind you of what the poem as a whole is like, and of Whitman's music at its best, I'll quote first the opening lines:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child

    leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot,

Down from the shower'd halo,

Up from the patches of briers and blackberries,

From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,

From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and

    failings I heard,

From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if

    with tears . . .

Here, the words are plastic, metamorphic. The center of the poem is not words, but a movement outward through words.That is, rather than beginning in words, the poem begins in the intensity of felt life which breaks open like the boiling point of water and carries the words forward. But this movement forward is brought up short at the end of the poem and becomes blocked by a word, or rather, by a reality which, because it has to remain unopened, can only exist for us as a word:

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,

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.

There's so much whispering and breathing outward in this passage that we can't help but remember that the word "death" rhymes with "breath," even if Whitman doesn't take advantage of the rhyme. In fact, he doesn't need to; the sensual fullness of "death" is enough for him. He's obviously in love with the word, and not ashamed to show it. The word has a magical power for him; he chants it, turns it this way and that, like an amulet, and allows the poem to pass almost entirely into the word. Of course, the word is a name, and perhaps one of the most unusual names in our language, since no one who uses or has ever used the language has experienced the reality the name calls forth. So it's a particularly impotent name, as names go, and few poets have ever said it as successfully as Whitman does here. Whitman, with the help of the ebbing rhythms of the ocean, wills the reality of death into the word. Or perhaps he seduces that reality, by singing to it. Whitman here is like Isis, who stung Re with a serpent and then withheld the cure for the sting until he told her his most secret name; when he did, he was completely in her power. Whitman in fact has seduced death into saying his own name.

Furthermore, Whitman has succeeded in uniting in this passage the opacity of language and the supple gestures of speech. He's also succeeded in uniting the sayable and the unsayable. These are perhaps the most brilliant features of this passage. The more you repeat a word, the more mute it becomes: you become aware of it not as a sound that denotes something, but simply as a kind of dumb sound. By chanting the word as he does, Whitman strikes an exact balance between on the one hand calling the reality of death forth with the insistence of his chant, the gesture of it, and on the other hand allowing that reality to pass over into silence, in the way any word repeated enough times passes over from meaning into pure, empty sound. All that can follow a passage like this is silence, itself a kind of death. Unfortunately, Whitman wrote another stanza after it. This has something of the effect of Beethoven continuing his A-minor quartet after the third movement, or of Rachmaninoff continuing his second symphony after his third movement. The only justification I can think of is that there's no way we can reenter the world with that kind of music in our heads; we need some ordinary language or ordinary music to ease the shock.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title John Vernon: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Vernon Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Poetry and the Body
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