Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking": A Critical Appreciation and Analysis

First published as “A Word Out of the Sea” in the 1860 edition of his collection Leaves of Grass and later published in the 1871 version using the final title. This long poem, one of the most powerful in the collection, is written in lyrical free verse. A boy stands by the seashore at night listening to the song of a mockingbird mourning for his mate; at the same time he listens to the death song of the sea and realizes that “my own songs awaked from that hour.” The mockingbird, singing to relieve his solitude, is a metaphor for the poetic spirit, while the sea is a symbol of the spiritual world to which poetry is witness.

"A Word Out of the Sea" ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"), which was initially published as "A Child's Reminiscence" in the Christmas issue of the New York Evening Post on December 24,1859.

The 1860 version of the poem begins abruptly: "Out of the rocked cradle." Whitman has frequently been praised for improving these lines to read in the final version: "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking." Their present-participial form and the rhythmic progression of dactyl-trochee are reminiscent of the regular and continuous rocking of the sea/cradle that is part of the poem's overall message of faith. But this message is implied rather than stated. The past tense and jolting rhythm of the initial lines, along with the third line that Whitman later deleted--"Out of the boy's mother's womb, and from the nipples of her breast"--are closer to the experience of discord, fracture, and separation that informed the 1860 version of the poem.

In seeking to improve his poems artistically, Whitman frequently eliminated or toned down passages of crisis, anxiety, and doubt, giving a smoother line to the arc of his own and the nation's development than had in fact been the case. The line "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking," which became the title of the poem in 1871, is at odds with the demonic rumblings of the sea throughout the poem, whereas the 1860 title "A Word Out of the Sea" retains some of the ambiguity and dark mystery of the word that the poet receives from the sea: "Death, Death, Death, Death, Death."

"Once, Paumanok," Whitman says at the outset of his "Reminiscence," giving an American folk quality to his tale of love and loss:

When the snows had melted, and the Fifth Month
grass was growing,
Up this sea-shore, on some briers,
Two guests from Alabama--two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with
And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand,
And every day the she-bird, crouched on her nest,
silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

'I'he he-bird and she-bird exist in a fecund, sun-drenched, and seemingly timeless landscape of love, where they celebrate the union that sustains them against potentially divisive elements:

Shine! Shine!
Put down your warmth, great Sun!
While we bask--we two together.

Two together!
Winds blow South, or
winds blow North,
Day come white, or
night come
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
all time, minding no time,
If we two but
keep together.

This harmonious union is broken when "May-be killed, unknown to her mate," the she-bird disappears one day, never to return.

This story of love and loss has usually been treated as a dramatization of a personal experience.' In image and tone, the story seems to relate in particular to the Calamus poems and the homosexual love crisis that Whitman records in this sequence. If, however, we read the poem in the specificity of its historical context, we find a democratic elegy written at a time of national crisis that unites all the elements, psychosexual and political. To read the poem in relation to the division of the American Union is not to detract from its significance as a tale of love, loss, and artistic resolution but, rather, to recognize the historical roots of this elegy of dissolution in the state of the nation on the eve of the Civil War.

The poet's tale of two together is a communal idyll, projecting the democratic dream of America that fed the national imagination and spurred Whitman to pour out his own joyous carols. Local Paumanok is a grassy, spring landscape of fertility and generativity, where native American mockingbirds pass their time singing songs of love and union in a
version of American pastoral. Whitman evokes their idyllic existence in the vernacular idiom of the locale, using the Quaker term Fifth Month for May, and words such as he-bird and she-bird, briers, crouched, and peering.

As birds of passage, the "two guests from Alabama" nesting on the shores of Long Island organically join North and South in a single life-rhythm. The union of he-bird and she-bird sustains them through darkness and light and in the midst of potentially disruptive winds from north and south. When the she-bird disappears, the he-bird looks southward as the source of disunion, invoking the south wind to return his mate to him. All summer long his songs are absorbed bv the curious boy:

Yes, when the stars glistened,
All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop'd stake,
Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.

The fracture of idyllic union transforms the he-bird into a solitary singer of loss and separation. In contrast with the sun-drenched landscape of the two together, the bird is isolated in a nocturnal landscape that appears to be the site of violence and execution. No longer a communal singer of harmony and joy, the bird now comes closer to the neurosis and solipsism of one of Poe's lovelorn characters, tossing himself frantically on the grave of his beloved.

The transformation of the bird from a joyous singer of light and union to an elegiac singer of darkness and separation is similar to the transformation that Whitman himself underwent during the period of heightening schism in the nation between 1855 and 1860. In fact, Whitman points out the analogy: Into the past-tense narration from the child's perspective, he interjects the present-tense voice of the adult poet:

He called on his mate,
He poured forth the meanings which I, of all men,
Yes, my brother, I know,
The rest might not--but I have treasured every note.

What Whitman knows, he tells us, comes from both shared experience and the specter of "White arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing"--reminding us of similar visions of shipwreck and drowning in "As I Ebb'd" and other 1860 poems.

The bird's song ends on a forlorn note: "Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved!," he repeats, shifting from the present to the past tense, as he recognizes the fact of "Two together no more." As the bird's song sinks, the poet's song rises in the heart of the boy. "The aria sinking,/All else continuing," Whitman says as he links the sinking of the bird's aria with the emergence of the "outsetting bard of love" in a sequence of participial lines that moves beyond the finality of loss and death, inscribing a unitary pattern of endless process:

The boy extatic--with his bare feet the waves, with
his hair the atmosphere dallying,
The love in the heart pent, now loose, now at last
tumultuously bursting,
The aria's meaning, the ears, the Soul, swiftly
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there--the trio--each uttering,
The undertone--the savage old mother, incessantly
To the boy's Soul's questions sullenly timing--some
drowned secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard of love.

Here for the first time the "fierce old mother" the sea, whose "angry moans" have surged as a hoarse undercurrent through the poem, joins the boy and the bird to become a major character in the drama; it is she who bears the "drowned" secret suspected by the bird, sought by the boy, and translated by the poet.

Although the poem may say something about the origins of Whitman's art, the interaction between bird and boy is less an enactment of Whitman's emergence as a poet than it is a dramatization of his reemergence as a poet after his crisis of the late 1850s. If the bird projects some of Whitrnan's despairing sense of personal and national loss, the emergent poet represents the renewed dedication to his art through which Whitman attempted to overcome his crisis of faith. In the final version of the poem, the poet emerged as "the outsetting bard" not the "outsetting bard of love," but the initial line is closer to his concept of his role in 1860 as the lover and fuser of his "heated, torn, distracted" times.

But while the bird's "despairing carols" deepen the boy's awareness and release him into song, the bird's effect is not wholly positive. In the final version of the poem, the bird is addressed as "Demon or bird!," echoing Poe's similar "bird or fiend" addressed to his fateful raven. A demon can be a muse, a genius, or an inspiration, but it can also be an evil spirit, a fiend from the underworld, or a demon like Poe's raven piercing the heart with its beak. The boy's reaction to the bird suggests both
senses of the term:

O throes!
O you demon, singing by yourself--projecting me,
O solitary me, listening--never more shall I cease
imitating, perpetuating you,
Never more shall I escape,
Never more shall the reverberations,
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent
from me,
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
The unknown want, the destiny of me.

Echoing the refrain of "The Raven"--"Nevermore"--the entire sequence has a Poesque ring. The effect of the "dusky demon"--a line Whitman later toned down to "messenger"--is in fact mixed, summed up in the paradox "sweet hell"; sweet because he arouses the flames of desire and hell because this desire can never be satisfied in the world. The distance between the peaceful child and the awakened bard of love marks the distance Whitman traveled between his own visionary songs of 1855 and the elegiac poems of 1860.

Like the poet in "As I Ebb'd," the boy wants to be more than a solitary singer of separation and fracture; he wants a further clue that will allow him to move beyond the tragic perspective of the bird:

O give me some clew!
O if I am to have so much, let me have more!
O a word! O what is my destination?
O I fear it is henceforth chaos!
O how joys, dreads, convolutions, human shapes, and
all shapes, spring as from graves around me!
O phantoms! you cover all the land, and all the sea!
O I cannot see in the dimness whether you smile or
frown upon me;
O vapor, a look, a word! O well-beloved!
O you dear women's and men's phantoms!

As an intense response to the prospect of dissolution and chaos, the boy's words articulate the poet's mood in 1860: They link Whitman's uncertainty about his identity and destiny as a poet with his doubts about the fate of the nation and the order of the universe. Like the vision of the land as a corpse that he evoked in his antislavery notes and that flits specterlike in and out of his verse, the passage reverses the regenerative myth that is the source of his faith in human and national destiny. The passage registers the fear of some sort of catastrophe, as joys, dreads, convolutions spring at the poet and phantoms cover land and sea. 'I'hrough the dimness, the poet cannot tell whether he is moving toward light or darkness, regeneration or chaos. In the poem's final version, Whitman deleted all but the first two lines of the boy's desperate address to the sea. The change had the effect of removing from the poem the fact of historic struggle, the sense of panic about human destiny that in 1860 was bound up with the impending dissolution of the nation.

Like the "unsaid word" sought by the poet in "Song of Myself," at the end of "Out of the Cradle" the boy seeks "the word final, superior to all." But the word the boy receives in 1860 is not, as in 1855, "form and union and plan." The word he receives is DEATH:

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
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.

The fivefold repetition of Death responds to the bird's plaint--"Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved!"--seeming to convey a life-affirming message of continuity and process, a message that is underlined syntactically by the passage's participial flow: answering, delaying, hurrying, hissing, edging, rustling, creeping. But from the child's point of view at least, there is still something "creepy" about Death. Like the monster-sea that overtakes Emily Dickinson on the outskirts of consciousness in "I Started Early Took My Dog," the sea that edges toward the child is not completely reassuring. Lisping and hissing, creeping and rustling like a snake, the sea's word of death is at best ambiguous.

The poem moves in the concluding sequence from past to present, returning to the adult frame of the poet. It is here that Whitman seeks to reconcile the dualities of the poem: life and death, love and loss, child and man, land and sea, sun and moon, day and night, south and north, past and present. The poet's final words are a unifying gesture, articulated in a single phrase that appears as a continuous flow out of the world of the sea and the preceding action of the poem.

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, 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,
The sea whispered me.

Appearing in his 1860 role as unifier and fuser, Whitman resolves artistically the problem of dissolution by yoking the song of two together, the boy's responsive songs, and the word death in a single poetic phrase that encompasses as it inscribes a compensatory rhythm of life and death, love and loss. Beneath and beyond the poem's artistic resolution we still hear the rumbling of a darker sea that floats up the sediment and debris of "As I Ebb'd." But by using an artistic rather than a chronological ordering in the 1860 Leaves, Whitman presents "Out of the Cradle" as a progression away from rather than toward the wasted shores of "As I Ebb'd."

As a response to the fact of dissolution in self and world, "Out of the Cradle" marks a turn toward the other-worldly poetics of Whitman's later period. The poet locates the source of his songs not in democratic presence, but in absence and death, in the "unsatisfied love" and "unknown want" that he seeks to articulate in song but that can never be fully satisfied in the social world. If the poem dramatizes Whitman's renewed dedication to his art after his crisis of faith in the late 1850s, it is a dedication that arises out of the disjunction between desire and history, between the poet's democracy of the imagination and the fact of a disintegrating world.

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.

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
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", 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.

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".

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 your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together.

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.

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". 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. 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.

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".

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 ....

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.

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.

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 new found inner harmony, he finds himself able to compose his message of faith in his creative powers.

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Whisper said...

a nicely done analysis of "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking" with some beautiful photographs

Rogan San said...

Good Job. A thorough essay that I have come to rely on regarding this work

Lijo Jose said...

thank you loads !!

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