The long stanza opens the poem with a phrasal catalogue, featuring a series of prepositional repetends: "out of" becomes "out from," and then "from" structures the central portion of the passage. All of the prepositions denote a starting point, a point of departure, and they indicate a multitude of sources for the genesis of the poet. Out of this multitude Whitman creates an integral poetic self, and the key to the creation is "the word stronger and more delicious than any." When the poet arrives at "the word," he moves from the simple past to a mixture of past and present, and he moves away from the prepositional phrases denoting origins, from "the word" to "from such as now they start the scene revisiting." The punctuation of the 1860 edition clarifies the line, for it indicates that "they" refers to the dynamic words of Whitman’s poems: "From such, as now they start, the scene revisiting."
Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" Whitman is in full possession of this new key—this basic fact and the "delicious word," "the word final, superior to all" (LG, 252)—that unlocks another vast similitude. The shared experience of love and loss links all creation together and empowers the emerging poet to tally birdsong, his own troubling emotions, and the vast background of nature and authorizes him to "translate" them in personifications and narratives. Whitman's new key gives him access to a broader range of rhetorical and literary devices while enabling him to maintain his anagogic conception of poetic language. Without the narrative that frames the "reminiscence" of the poem, the poet could not work back to the key word, the word that unlocked nature and natural similitudes for him. Without possessing the key word that authorizes his language, however, he could not frame his narrative, for the very narrative—its temporal "syntax"—is made possible by the knowledge of loss. The structure of the story and its purport—that all true stories end in death—are mutually empowering forces that make the poem's equilibrium.
Moreover, the key is now also a "clef"—a variant Whitman sometimes uses, as in "On the Beach at Night Alone"—for it sets the key for song. Poetic music, too, superimposes a "struck" identity and an identity at base, the language of the poet-child and the base rhythm of the mother-sea, the "aria" of individual loss and the backdrop of "the undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying" (LG, 251 ). The poet can join a community of loss and adequately translate the bird's loss into words only if he can also translate his words into nature. For poetic meaning and music are empowered by the very force that would negate them. Whitman's language counterpoints the two isomorphic poetries: the "aria"—ordered, "crafted"—and the "dirge" of the sea, which echoes the base rhythm of Whitman's cadences, the cosmic music of loss inscribed in poetic language. And the "death" of this rhythm eternally counterpoints the "loved" of articulation, whether in communal, narrative, or grammatical "adhesions."
"Death, death, death, death, death" is thus the key line in the poem; it superimposes not only a word and a fact but a meaningful phoneme and a meaningless sound. Its superscription marks the limits of language, for language is reduced to nature here, as when a word repeated too many times loses its meaning and becomes mere sound. Conversely, the line marks the limits of nature, for death is reduced to a mere word repeated in a basic five-stress line of poetry. Here, the epistemological boundary of language and the physical bounds of nature coincide. The irreducible, tautological reality and the impenetrable phoneme are one: "death" is death, sound is meaning, form is content. Against the backdrop of this maternal, synchronic identity play the "struck" identities or "adhesive" forces of similitude and metaphor, love and syntax, memory and narrative, loss and song. "Death," the "word up from the waves" (LG, 253), is the only word nature speaks in the poem, for all other words are presented as tallied. And "death" authorizes the poem's narrative and rhetoric, for it is the word that links language to nature; it is the omphalos of language. The word of transubstantiation, "death" is "sweet" and "delicious"; it plays on the tongue and is the bread and the wine that inspire the breath of poetry.
The poem dramatizes an achievement of control over threatening powers through a form of acceptance of them and a surrender of the self—represented in the bird’s "possession" of the child and then an opening of ego-boundaries to the sea—which miraculously ends in self-possession and a stable relationship with the powers. The progression embodies a specific form of role-process by which the ground of affliction is mastered, its closest relative being the shamanic "call."
This must be the mature poet looking back over his past life; a boy would scarcely have these anticipations of such a fate in store for him. But when he begs for a "clew," he is putting himself back in the time when he, and by extension every human being, sought an answer to the meaning of suffering and death in the natural world. The bird, symbol of nature on the sensory level, does not give the answer; it comes from the sea, the "old crone rocking her cradle." The sea, therefore, symbolizes the principle of maternity, which is to say birth and life. She whispers "death," but coming from the rocker of the "cradle," the implication is that death is but a natural transition to rebirth.
One day, in 1858, I think, [Whitman] came to see us, and after talking awhile on various matters, he announced, a little diffidently I thought, that he had written a new piece. In answer to our inquiries, he said it was about a mocking bird, and was founded on a real incident. My mother suggested that he bring it over and read to us, which he promised to do. In some doubt in spite of this assurance, we were, therefore, agreeably surprised when a few days after he appeared with the manuscript of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" in his pocket. At first he wanted one of us to read it. Mr. A. took it and read it through with great appreciation and feeling. He then asked my mother to read it, which she did. And finally, at our special request, he read it himself. That evening comes before me now as one of the most enjoyable of my life. At each reading fresh beauties revealed themselves to me. I could not say whose reading I preferred; he liked my mother’s, and Mr. A. liked his. After the three readings were over, he asked each one of us what we would suggest in any way, and I can remember how taken aback and nonplussed I was when he turned and asked me also.