"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is one of Whitman's most moving and difficult poems. The poem was first published under the title "A Child's Reminiscence" in the New York Saturday Press for 24 December 1859, with the opening verse paragraph bearing the heading "Pre-Verse." The issue contained also a notice on the editorial page probably written by Henry Clapp, the editor of the Press and a close friend of Whitman, which terms the poem "our Christmas or New Year's present to [our readers]." When the Cincinnati Daily Commercial published an attack upon the poem a few days later, the Saturday Press of 7 January 1860 reprinted the attack along with an anonymous response by Whitman entitled "All About a Mocking-Bird." There, in one of his first defenses against hostile criticism, Whitman justifies the poem and his craft and prophesies a new edition of Leaves of Grass, what would become the 1860 edition. "Out of the Cradle" appeared in that edition as "A Word Out of the Sea," with the heading "Reminiscence" placed between the first and second verse paragraphs. Whitman made several changes in the poem for the 1867 edition, used the title "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" for the first time in the 1871 edition, and gave the poem virtually its final form in the 1881 edition. In the Deathbed edition, it stands prominently at the head of the "Sea-Drift section.
"Out of the Cradle" dominates the "Sea-Drift" grouping because it condenses Whitman's themes of love, death, sexuality, loss, and their relation to language and poetry into a single setting and situation. On the beach at night, a curious boy wanders alone, witnessing two birds living and loving together. Then one vanishes, the other searches fruitlessly, the boy questions also only to hear the ocean's final assertion of death, and the man notes "My own songs awaked from that hour." Here is Whitman narrating his awakening to death and his simultaneous projection into poesy. Out of this primal scene of eros and thanatos, of a "musical shuttle" made of "pains and joys," Whitman derives an intense and somber lesson in mortality and inspiration.
However, despite the ardor of the experience described, "Out of the Cradle" is remarkable in that here Whitman reveals a masterful formal control of his material. The opening of the poem is a tour de force of poetic suspense: a single sentence, twenty-two lines of sustained anaphora and parallelism, of gliding prepositional phrases and arousing half-allusions culminating in the simple bardic verb "sing." This haunting recitation introduces the four voices in the poem—bird, boy, man, sea—and arranges them into a sequence of "afflatus." That is, the bird calls "those beginning notes of yearning and love," the boy listens and "translat[es]" them as the italicized lines in the poem, the man records the translation and comments on the boy's condition, and the sea taciturnly provides the final word on the matter, the "word of the sweetest song and all songs"—death. And out of the boy's observance of love and loss and his hearkening to the sea's "hissing" iteration, "Death, death, death, death, death," comes a new destiny for the boy—to become a spirit dedicated to poetry. As the boy listens to the he-bird's progress from odes to timeless love to lament over the disappearance of the she-bird to peals of desperate hope that his love may return to piercing recognition of perpetual loss, the boy (as reflected upon by the man) turns to the sea for explanation, for some "clew" as to why such suffering comes about. The sea's patient answer solves nothing. Instead, it lifts the question out of its local context, provoking a universalization of the she-bird's departure, a conversion of individual pain into natural law.
This is the inspiration to sing, to write poetry. If death is not exactly the birth of language, it is the birth of song, the mother of beauty. As the essays by Stephen Whicher, Paul Fussell, Richard Chase, and Roy Harvey Pearce (all printed in an English Institute volume entitled The Presence of Walt Whitman) attest, "Out of the Cradle" raises the prospect of annihilation and concludes that there is nothing to do about it but sing it. In doing so, the poem places itself in a traditional genre of poems recounting the birth of poetry out of death. That is, "Out of the Cradle" dramatizes an archetypal experience of loss and reaches a familiar outcome: verse. In this genre, there is nothing else to do with irreversible loss but to describe its happening. How else can the bird recall his absent object of desire but by announcing its absence until his "carol" becomes in Whitman's rendition a worldwide annunciation? What else can Whitman make of his forsakenness but to dramatize it, to generalize bereavement into a human condition, the word of all songs? One love is lost, and all of life is changed.
This poetic psychodrama has led other scholars to interpret the love-loss-poetry pattern as it appears in "Out of the Cradle" in psychobiographical terms. Certainly the poem's language and narrative lend themselves to psychological description, with phrases such as "The unknown want, the destiny of me," or "A man, yet by these tears a little boy again," or "cries of unsatisfied love" virtually soliciting a reading that borrows upon concepts of repression and the unconscious. Accordingly, critics such as Gustav Bychowski, Edwin Haviland Miller, Stephen Black, David Cavitch, and M. Jimmie Killingsworth have read the poem using a more or less psychoanalytical framework. Read within the purview of the unconscious, Whitman's poetic expressions come to be seen as the culmination of a psychic process, one characterized by sublimation and substitution and displacement. Psychoanalytical interpretation entails recovering clearly the psychic content which "Out of the Cradle" represents in a distorted fashion. That is, it begins with Whitman's Oedipal situation—a complex one, especially considering his excessively adoring portraits of his mother and his virtual silence about his father—and decodes the poem accordingly.
In this case, "Out of the Cradle" and its story of ideal love and traumatic separation and the abandoned he-bird's all-encompassing lament actually reenact Whitman's own trauma of separation. In the boy's humble testimony, Whitman vicariously expresses the pain of loss, the withdrawal of, perhaps, mother or recent lover (indeed, the latter would only be an aggravation of the former). The peremptory voice of the maternal sea marks Whitman expanding the source of that pain beyond his real mother, thereby expanding (or repressing) his desires away from the narcissistic needs of the infant. Whitman still desires to overcome separation, to reexperience the "oceanic feeling" characterizing the mother-newborn relation, but that unity must now come at a cosmic level, not a personal one. (This may be because of his mother's threatening aspect, her tendency to absorb Walt's ego into her own, or because of his father's intemperate, distant attitude toward him.) Individual love means loss and dereliction, along with all the guilt and abjection that the ego takes upon itself to explain that catastrophe. But if that excruciating loneliness and self-recrimination—that emotional death—be linked to a universal lament, then Whitman may feel involved in a larger process of life and death, unified with all other things that experience the same pain. If this cosmic unification marks yet another sublimation, it is a creative one, more comprehensive and orderly than the he-bird's despairing cries or the boy's confused inquisitions.
Of course, this rough approximation of psychobiographical interpretations of "Out of the Cradle" smooths out differences in the readings offered by the critics mentioned above. It also does not take into account a methodological question: How does the poem represent Whitman's psycho-sexual tensions? This question is posed by another group of readings of "Out of the Cradle." These readings may be termed "theoretical" in that they ask not so much about the content of the representation as they explore the relation between representation and represented, psyche and word, intention and expression.
In theoretical readings of "Out of the Cradle" by critics such as Diane Wood Middlebrook, Kerry Larson, and Mark Bauerlein, the focus lies on the nature of the process of translation carried out in the poem. If the poem records Whitman's discovery of his "tongue's use," then the poem must proceed to show how the boy-man-poet learns to translate life and death into words that affect others, to transform formative experiences and dim memories into songs that transcend their circumstances. What is exceptional about "Out of the Cradle" in this respect is precisely the translation model Whitman sets his poetic inspiration within. For, as opposed to most conceptions of poetic origins, Whitman locates his inspiration in another's experience—the mockingbird's—and assumes the duty of translator, not originator of pathos. He becomes a singer of "warbling echoes" and "reverberations," imitating, "perpetuating" the bird, who is himself an imitator, a mockingbird. In other words, Whitman's birth as a poet happens when he joins a procession of singers and listeners—mockingbird, boy, man, poet, reader—attending to the cries of lonesome love.
This is what distinguishes his song from the bird's song. Upon losing his love, the bird remains frenzied, disbelieving, his cries addressing solely his loss, his pain allowing for no other realization but the return of his love. Even when he does begin to accept the loss, all he can do is repeat "Loved!" five times and say blankly, " But my mate no more, no more with me! " His lament remains self-centered, eventually trailing off into self-torture and despair. His song cannot succeed the way Whitman's does because he has no awareness of joining in a procession of communications, of communion. He fails to realize that poets work by "Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them," beyond their contingent aspects and beyond the poet's own private concerns. Conceiving himself as an origin and end of song, the bird-poet can only insistently repeat his trauma. He needs a translator, one who can recast his notes as a beautiful permutation of elegiac narrative. Great poets require an apprehension of more than just their own individuality, and of course the absolute limit to individuality is death. This is why death is the word of all songs. It forces poets to see and sing beyond their own personal experience.
Such a conclusion reverses the romantic conception of the poet and belies the commonplace interpretation of Whitman as the most egotistical of writers. But in "Out of the Cradle," translation is not a fallen condition and self-absorption is a failure. The boy who sits in the bushes "translating" the "notes" seems free and natural, wholly devoid of irony or insincerity or narcissism. Perhaps the connection of innocence and interpretation contributes to the appeal of "Out of the Cradle." In any case, whether considered as a supreme instance of conventional elegy, a charged reflection of psychosexual tensions, or a complex meditation upon how to give words to trauma, "Out of the Cradle" remains a centerpiece of Whitman's poetry and poetics. In its poignant evocation of a lonely beach where a "curious boy" sits "peering, absorbing," hearing a mockingbird's natural cries of love and despair and feeling those notes turn to poems within him, "Out of the Cradle" embodies for many the Whitmanian poetic moment, the emotive origin and measure of his song.
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Bychowski, Gustav. "Walt Whitman: A Study in Sublimation." Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences. Ed. Geza Roheim. New York: International Universities, 1950. 223-261.
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Renner, Dennis K. "Reconciling Varied Approaches to 'Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.'" Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Ed. Donald D. Kummings. New York: MLA, 1990. 67-73.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.