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On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

Helen E. Price

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.

from Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), 29.

Leo Spitzer

As for the songs of the birds, let us note first that Whitman has chosen to replace the hackneyed literary nightingale by a domestic bird of America, the mocking-bird, compared to which, Jefferson once declared, the European nightingale is a third-rate singer. The manner in which Whitman has "translated," to use his modest expression, the song of the mockingird into words deserves boundless admiration. I know of no other poem in which we find such a heart-rending impersonation of a bird by a poet, such a welding of bird’s voice and human word, such an empathy for the joy and pain expressed by nature’s singers.

from "Explication de Texte Applied to Walt Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’" [1949] in James Woodress, ed., Critical Essays on Walt Whitman (Boston, G. K. Hall, 1983), 222.

Gay Wilson Allen and Charles T. Davis

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.

from Walt Whitman’s Poems (New York: Grove, 1955), 166-167.

George B. Hutchinson

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."

from The Ecstatic Whitman (Ohio State UP, 1986), 126.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing

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.

from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

James Perrin Warren

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."

from Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment (Pennsylvania State UP, 1990), 160-161.

Mark Bauerlein

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is not so much a dramatic poem staging the activation of Whitman’s innate poetic genius as it is a "reminiscence" describing his conscious entry into reading and writing, discourse and interpretation. The boy is interpolated into a particular semiotic order, a vocal chain of signifiers bound together, in this case, by a common emotive signified, "lonesome love." Recognizing the temporal origin and destiny of his utterance, Whitman joins the procession of singer-signmakers, knowing that others will follow and "translate" his words just as he has "translated" his "brother’s" "notes." The boy’s singular version of the bird’s lament, therefore, is less a spontaneous outburst of love springing from his awakened heart than it is a transient permutation of elegaic narrative.

from Whitman and the American Idiom (Louisiana State UP, 1991), 146.

Amitai Avi-Ram

The sea is an instance of the mythic type of the "death-mother," the obverse side of the mother as origin of life: "Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return" (Job 1:21). The crone is specifically represented as rocking the cradle, a powerful image of how the physical sense of rhythm is learned, nurtured, and encouraged by the mother even before speech is acquired. Who would know better about the loss of song and the death of rhythm in its literal, physical sense than the very being who first brought rhythm forth into the world for the child? The mother recognizes death for what it is and gives it a name which itself is a death and brings about the death of the poem, that is, the poem’s end.

from "Free Verse in Whitman and Ginsberg" in Robert K. Martin, ed., The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman (U of Iowa P, 1992), 104.

Ezra Greenspan

Whitman was fond of [a] long-flowing poetic syntax, with the subject (normally, in the first person) stated first and its capabilities left unfolding via a string of participles. Conversely, he was also fond of precisely the opposite structure, delaying the appearance of the subject "I" until the end of a long-flowing sequence of participial, prepositional, or clausal expressions, thus creating the context out of which his "I" will be born. The best instance of this is one of the finest sustained pieces of verse he ever wrote: the opening strophe of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

from "Some Remarks on the Poetics of ‘Participle-Loving Whitman’" in Greenspan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman (Cambridge UP, 1995), 95.

Betsy Erkkila

"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 (December 24, 1859), was composed before "As I Ebb'd," perhaps as early as 1858. In the artistic ordering of the 1860 Leaves, however, "Out of the Cradle" comes after and appears to respond to the doubts raised by "As I Ebb'd."

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 black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing 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 "unsatified 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.

from Whitman the Political Poet. Copyright © 1989 by Oxford University Press.

John Vernon

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
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
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.

from Poetry and the Body. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Bettina L. Knapp

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" [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.

From Walt Whitman. New York: Continuum, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Bettina Knapp.

Ezra Greenspan

The poem opens with one of the finest of Whitman's blocks of running rhythmic verse, all its mounting energy channeled into his poetic I -- or more precisely, into his I's performing the poetic act. That act, stripped of its modifiers, consists simply of a single grammatical statement: I sing a reminiscence. The reminiscence that he sings, whether recalled or invented, is of the singular experience in his childhood which made him the man-poet that he now is and that he expects always to be. By 1860, Whitman had already enough years of life and poetic experience behind him to know that his present and future would also have to take into consideration his past, and so he was now given to reviewing his personal and poetic history. That he was no longer a young man and that he realized it is plain to see in the engraving he used for the frontispiece to the third edition. It showed a man clearly grayer, heavier, and fleshier than the rugged workingman pose he had struck for the two previous editions, a sensitive, vulnerable, inward-looking man rather than the self-confident, assertive man of the people of 1855-6.

The primary direction of this poem, as of its like, "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life, " is backward, a search for origins. The search takes him back to the most formative of all natural settings for Whitman, one referred to frequently but rarely utilized fully in previous poems: the seashore, the meeting line between his paternal island and the "savage old mother" of life and death. This was the greatest of all areas of intersection for Whitman, "that suggesting, dividing line, contact, junction, the solid marrying the liquid." It is in approaching this magic dividing line, always in flux, that the mature poet meets his boyhood self, as well as his final adversary, death.

Beginning with its opening stanza, the poem is a symphonic song of oneness and twoness. It opens in the preliminary strophe with a masterly display of Whitman's rhythmic control, all its force transferred late in the stanza into the word pair "boy" and "man" ("A man -- yet by these tears a little boy again"), and through their apposition, into the subject-I several lines later. Through this technique of rhythmic transference, Whitman immediately formulated the central issue of the poem, the identity of the poet, to whose making the various motifs of the poem all contribute. The poet's identity will be formed from the interplay of these motifs, introduced in this stanza and to figure prominently in the second part of the poem; but it will emerge even more directly through the mediacy of that element which is common both to them and to him: "the word." The word is to come to the man-child in several forms -- first from the song of the mockingbird and later from the "undertone" of the sea.

The mockingbirds come up from the South "two together" at springtime to establish their family. As they sing their song of union, "Singing all time, minding no time, / If we two but keep together," the young boy stations himself nearby, "cautiously peering, absorbing, translating" -- that is, performing the three-stage process by which the poet transforms experience into art. The harmonious union of the birds, their twoness as oneness, is disrupted by the disappearance of the female, leaving the distraught "he-bird" to sing its song of loneliness and solitude. The bird's song of desolation, written in 1860 with a two-beat apostrophe designed to reinforce the sense of two together, floats out over the water and in its sweep ties together the elements of the universe, worked up by Whitman's present progressive-dominated language into a state of natural generation, for its ultimate recipient, the enraptured boy.

The effect of the song and setting on the boy, the "outsetting bard," is complete and lasting: it awakens his "sleeping" tongue and arouses him to "the unknown want, the destiny of me." His destiny, it is clear, whatever it will be, will be in language and through language. So that when the mature man, reliving the scene in his mind, looks for the "clew" to the memory's final meaning, he looks for it--and finds it—in the form of "a word." That word is "death," brought to him--or more exactly, brought to his remembering consciousness--by the hissing waves, as they slithered up to his feet and rose up over him to the level of his ears. What Whitman had written earlier in another of his water poems--"That I was, I knew was of my body -- and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body" ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry")--is equally true of the scene here, as the body becomes the conduit to the formation of personality. It was always one of the sources of Whitman's strength as a poet that he thought and composed in closest quarters to his body; when "the word" comes to him here, it naturally comes with the contact of the waves on his body:

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 DEATH,
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.

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.

"The sea whispered me" -- the formulation is too striking not to draw attention to itself Whitman was to use rhyme with extreme infrequency during his Leaves of Grass career; but when he did, he tended to favor rhymes off of "me." The rhyme used so conspicuously here calls attention to the ambiguity of the line's phraseology, which in view of the phraseology of the previous stanza, I can interpret only as being deliberately ambiguous. Does the sea whisper "to me" (and/or "for me") or does it whisper "me"? The answer, I suppose, is both. The sea whispers to the boy-poet's ears, but it also whispers to his ears his identity (death). From his perspective, it whispers me to me. This is what I meant when I spoke of the closing circle of self in the poems of the 1860 Leaves of Grass composed latest. With no reader as intermediary, with no addressee outside of the poem, the lines of the poem are all self-contained. For this reason, Roy Harvey Pearce was right to stress the considerable artificiality on Whitman’s part of later interposing between the two last verses the lovely but misleading line, with its universalizing effect:

(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet
    garments, bending aside,)

It draws attention away from the point where the force of the poem lay in its 1860 version: the vital connection between the "word" and "me." For it is here, in personal identity constructed through language, that the 1860 poem centered and that Whitman, even as he grew older, continued to locate the center of his existence.

I spoke of Whitman's heightened concern with time, the present moment, in connection with the Calamus poems; and I find a similar kind of concern here. This poem was composed with an awareness not only of the spread of his body but with the spread of his body over time. Whitman had not previously been so sensitive to the effect of the past pushing its way into the present, which is why in no other poem since "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" had he been so concerned to merge time schemes in the present moment of the poem. One can, of course, claim that Whitman's aim, in this regard, was transcendental, that the birds' song of "singing all time, minding no time" was one which Whitman's larger song, through the process of "fus[ion]," necessarily transformed from a specific song and moment into a thousand poems and moments. To this extent, this poem approximates the poetic position of process and potentiality Whitman had favored in his earlier poetry, allows him theoretically to point himself and his poetry toward the future. But this is so only in theory; in actuality, the thrust of the poem is toward consolidation, not expansion; its action, retrenchment, not progression. Particularly in its 1860 form, it was the expression of a man taking stock of his life and art.

From Walt Whitman and the American Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Cambridge UP.

Mark Bauerlein

Second only to "Song of Myself" in amount of critical attention received since its publication, "Out of the Cradle" brings together in one simple narrative many of the seminal themes and emotions making up the context of Whitman's poetics: love, death, sexuality, loss, and their relation to language and expression.

The scholarly tradition has interpreted "Out of the Cradle" generally as a dramatization of the poet's apprehension of death and the fundamental originary poetic inspiration it generates. The boy falls from innocence into mortality and self-consciousness (the clearest symptom of which is language) and then recounts the story of his separation from nature, hoping that narration will grant him a sense of control over or at least some palliating understanding of his catastrophe. "Out of the Cradle," then, is Whitman's Romantic crisis poem, his "Tintern Abbey," "Mont Blanc," or, in its bare essentials, "Fort! Da!," the common narrative thread being the speaker's rumination upon loss or death and the compensation, not recovery, provided by poetic utterance.

The problem with this interpretation is that it presupposes a primal time of innocence, a state of mind in which the child experiences his surroundings with an unmediated vision, before cultural impositions (or Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents) fetter his consciousness and exile him from an unconscious participation in the world. The child "beholds God and nature face to face" (Emerson), sees the world in its "ever-early candor" (Stevens), has an infallible, innate "Realometer" (Thoreau) guiding his thought. The world is transparent and the young mind is intuitive. Nature represents itself openly to hearts ready to receive it without interpreting it.

Such a scheme may be useful in studying certain aspects of Romantic nature poetry, but it does not apply to "Out of the Cradle," for in Whitman's poem nature is from the very beginning a meaningful text and the boy is a probing and detached exegete. The opening verse paragraph describes the boy wandering across "the sterile sands, and the fields beyond" in explicitly semiotic terms: there are "mystic play of shadows," "memories of the bird," "beginning notes of sickness and love, there in the transparent mist," "the myriad thence-aroused words," and "the word stronger and more delicious than any." Even to a child's vision, nature is a "mystic play," a melody "transparent" but "misty," an "aroused" language calling out for interpretation, beckoning the boy to reciprocate with a corresponding natural language.

Appropriately, the boy (and the reminiscing poet), "Taking all hints to use them--but swiftly leaping beyond them" (l. 21), is eager to penetrate the text, to follow the "hints" to their transcendent source. As he listens to the mockingbirds singing in the sky, instead of joining with them in their hymn of love, the "curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them," sits in the shadows "Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating" (ll. 30-31). He reads and rewrites the birds' songs, "translating" first their harmonious domestic chant and then the "he-bird's" elegaic call for his lost mate into printed, italicized English. (The bird's "words" make up almost half the poem; the poet's words function as a kind of commentary upon the conditions surrounding his "translation.") The original song, then, is not a pure self-identical, nonsemantic, Orphic outburst of feeling: the "notes" contain "meanings which I, of all men, know" (l. 60). If the song were not representational, if it did not have a memorial signified "behind" it, then the boy could not translate it. There would be no common meaning or reference to give words to; the song would have to remain in its "mocking-bird" tongue or be distorted by the boy's foreign language.

What validates the boy's translation is the fact that the bird's song is also a translation and not an original, unique eruption of feeling. As a "mocking-bird" (noted in line 2), the "solitary guest from Alabama" (l. 51) imitates "arias" already sung and arrogates for himself the instinctive cries of other birds. He is a "messenger" (l. 156). (Whitman uses this term in 1867; originally the line read "dusky demon.") Just as the boy questions him, "Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it mostly to me?" (l. 145) and then recasts the songs as his own individual lament, so the "mocking-bird" borrows others' calls to express his particular sorrow. The "musical shuttles" (l. 2) from absent, unknown, original singer to forlorn, mimicking, "sad brother" (l. 9), the "mockingbird," then to the "curious boy" "now translating the notes" (l. 69) to the aged poet, "chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter" (l. 20), who finally renders it to the reader. Whitman places himself, the boy he was, and the bird that inspired him in a chain of interpretations without an absolute beginning or end.

In allegorizing the causes and materials beyond the poet that nevertheless shape the poetry and the impending rereadings that will reshape it, Whitman surrenders to the linguistic play that diffuses his authority and undermines his originality, the crisis he struggled so long to ward off. He frees his language from any determinate source and destination, gives up the search for a natural language of the self, and accepts "the gaiety of language" (Stevens) and "unlimited semiosis" (Peirce), even though he knows such conclusions will explode his poetics. The sign will not stay put, he now admits, which means that his Orphic dream has ended.

This is why, in "Out of the Cradle," the beginning of poetry coincides with the realization of death. At first, after hearing (and simultaneously rendering) the bird's incantatory, phrenetic "aria," the boy is swept up in a sublime sonic abandonment.

The boy extatic--with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere
The love in the heart pent, now loose, now at last tumultuously bursting,
The aria's meaning, the ears, the Soul, swiftly depositing,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there--the trio--each uttering,
The undertone--the savage old mother, incessantly crying,
To the boy's Soul's questions sullenly timing--some drowned secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard of love.
                                                (ll. 136-43)

The "sands," the "waves," the "atmosphere," and "the notes of the wondrous bird" conspire to free the boy's "pent" "love" and to "deposit" in his "ears" and "Soul" the meaning, "the undertone," the "drowned secret" couched in the phenomena of nature and the longings of humanity. They form a "colloquy there . . . each uttering," enrapturing the boy's "heart," tuning his "ears" to the Logos, and schooling his "Soul" in the ways of oracular pronouncement.

Assuming their organic idiom, the boy becomes the "outsetting bard of love," his body and soul coordinated, all social constraints abolished:

For I that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping,
Now that I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for--I awake,
And already a thousand singers-a thousand songs, clearer, louder, more
    sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.

(ll. 146-49; Whitman later made the first two lines into one.)

Hearkening to the "he-bird's" desperate cry for his "lost mate" whose fate lies hidden in the tantalizing yet imperturbable "sea" (the other member of the "trio," along with the boy and the bird), the boy suddenly finds poetic energies "starting to life within" him. With unchildlike defensiveness--"I know what I am for"--he relinquishes his passive innocence, leaves behind "the peaceful child [he] was" (l. 154), and welcomes his inevitable "destiny"--to become a spirit dedicated to poetry, singing lithe cries of unsatisfied love" (l. 153).

The poetic sounds reverberating in the boy's soul, however, are not to be confused with the "live feeling" Whitman eulogizes in his notebooks and prose. Whereas pure poetry erupts spontaneously from the heart, the boy's interior language derives from an external origin. Composed of "a thousand warbling echoes," it is an anthropomorphic translation of the mockingbird's song, which is itself an echo. Though the boy boasts that his songs are "clearer, louder, more sorrowful"' than the bird's, in the next verse paragraph he promises to be faithful to his precursor, claiming that his future will be little more than a repetition of the latter's present: "O you demon, singing by yourself--projecting me, / O solitary me, listening--never more shall I cease imitating, perpetuating you" (ll. 150-51).

The newborn poet is a "project[ion]" and an "imitat[ion]," a channel-like medium "listening" to the "demon's" "reckless, despairing carols" (l. 104) and "perpetuating" (perpetuus, "to pass through") them. Though the boy, not merely a disengaged transmitter of the bird's lament, is passionately immersed in the music he renders--he sheds "strange tears" (l. 139) and feels "the fire, the sweet hell within" (l. 156)--still, that music is not entirely proper and unique to him and his wayward feelings. Notwithstanding its irregular transformation by consecutive auditors, the song precedes and succeeds each momentary "vocalization," survives beyond each individual articulation. Instead of having a local genesis and structure centered upon the "Personal Magnetism" (NUPM, I, 271) of the bird-boy-poet, the word is a universal, endlessly iterable "meaning," the very precondition and constitutive element of poetic identity.

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is not so much a dramatic poem staging the activation of Whitman's innate poetic genius as it is a "reminiscence" describing his conscious entry into reading and writing, discourse and interpretation. The boy is interpolated into a particular semiotic order, a vocal chain of signifiers bound together, in this case, by a common emotive signified, "lonesome love" (l. 101). Recognizing the temporal origin and destiny of his utterance, Whitman joins the procession of singer-signmakers, knowing that others will follow and "translate" his words just as he has "translated" his "brother's" "notes." The boy's singular version of the bird's lament, therefore, is less a spontaneous outburst of love springing from his awakened heart than it is a transient permutation of elegaic narrative. But it would be a mistake simply to discount the former, to say that Whitman, in introducing temporality, semiosis, and interpretation into his poetry, reduces his individual compositions to mere reiterations of conventional forms and themes.

An oversimplistic structural interpretation, by reading Whitman's poem as the discrete parole of a master narrative pattern or as the ideological construct of a cultural code, not only overlooks "Out of the Cradle's" peculiarity and Whitmanian-ness, its difference from other elegies, and neglects its pivotal place in the poet's canon and career. It also fails to account for what motivates the boy to adopt a hermeneutical posture toward nature in the first place. Semiotics focuses on structure, not semantics, on how a sign refers, not on what a sign means; but "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" has as its subject matter a middle ground between structure and meaning. That is to say, at the center of the poem is not a meaning or a sign but rather the tension between the two, the mercurial space and time dividing and defining them as such. More precisely, Whitman's poem is structured by (or is an outgrowth of) the conflict generated by (and generating) contrary suppositions about the nature of meaning--that is, meaning conceived of as an animating intention or feeling and meaning conceived of as an antecedent or consequent sign.

This is the fundamental opposition of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." The boy's dilemma epitomizes the poet's: How can Whitman enunciate feelings of love and pain and longing without using an anterior form and style and without yielding his feelings up to posterior interpretations? The boy turns to the bird's song as a natural medium organically continuous with feeling, yet how does Whitman characterize his lament? First, it is a translation, a secondhand rendition of another's music. Second, it must be retranslated. After adapting the song to his own private needs, the mockingbird passes it along to the "bareheaded, barefoot" (l. 14), uncultivated child who rephrases it in human terms. (The mockingbird's fidelity to the original call and the boy's disingenuousness do not make their translations "pure," for the transformations undergone by the emotive "content" during the substitution of signifiers are not entirely due to the biases of the translators. Substitution has its own effects.) Third, and most important for the conclusion of the poem, the song is ineffective. Though the boy (and generations of readers) finds the song a poignant and beautiful articulation of a universal affliction, the song fails to achieve its specific purpose--to return the "she-bird" to her lover. It provides neither knowledge nor comfort. It neither reveals the cause of her disappearance nor does it appease the anguish debilitating the "he-bird," "the lone singer" (l. 58) who, at the end, realizes that he is "singing uselessly all the night" (l. 124).

The "aria" is "useless" not because the "he-bird" lacks any innate Orphic powers. His voice seems to possess the same qualities of "timbre" and "modulation," to reach an equal range and pathos, that "The Perfect Human Voice" (Taylor, the opera singer Bettini, Hicks, and so on) does. Like the sometimes bardic, sometimes furtive, but always affecting voice in "Song of Myself," the "he-bird" moves from direct, commanding entreaty--"High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves, / Surely you must know who is here, / You must know who I am my love" (ll. 83-85)--to quieter, hypnotic, humlike tones--"Soft! Let me just mutmur,. . . With this just-sustained note I announce myself to you, / This gentle call is for you my love" (ll.106, 113-14). It is the song that fails, not the singer. It is the language itself that prevents the bird from recuperating the obscure lost object of desire. As a derivative utterance, the bird's song makes present only the anterior language it represents. The lost object and the feelings bound up with it exist beyond the order of signs and hence remain dark and unreachable.

Singing brings about more songs, not an end of singing, which a recuperation would accomplish. Though the "two guests from Alabama" (l. 26) sang to each other before the catastrophe, the last line in their duet ("If we two but keep together," l. 40) indicates that their inspiration is not so much their happiness in being together as it is their fear of imminent separation. Having resorted to words for satisfaction, for a restoration of domestic unity, the "he-bird" condemns himself to an endless retelling of his tragedy: "Murmur! Murmur on! / O murmurs--you yourselves make me continue to sing, I know not why" (lines later deleted; they originally followed line 124 after a space). Now it is the "murmuring," not the underlying feelings, that incites him to sing. Once articulation has taken the place of pure, undifferentiated feeling, one can never return to the simplicity of primitive, instinctual action and perception. The thing itself remains mediated and desire is eternalized. Intended for solace, the bird's song turns into a never-ending, self-defeating strategy bringing no physical or "metaphysical comfort."

Of course, the idea of a preinterpretive innocence or a prelapserian childhood golden age is a myth, a fictional memory constructed from the nostalgic perspective of self-conscious language users. As we have seen, even in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" mediation and semiosis are effectively at work in the boy, the birds, and nature from the very beginning. Nature unveils to the boy the semiotic nature of life, the fact that he lives in a world of interpretations and translations, a world in which meaning and truth and feeling and reality lie hidden or, more precisely, are a fugitive function of their ever-present yet insubstantial representatives. The boy must decide whether to become a willing participant in "unlimited semiosis" or to struggle futilely against it, to accept the temporal, revisionary character of his utterance or to try to stabilize and consecrate it, to forestall interpretation and halt the semiotic mutations his poems will suffer.

As we have seen, most of the time Whitman's poetics embrace the latter hope. Whitman's poet-figure manifests the authority and allure and veracity necessary to arrest interpretation--"The presence of the great poet conquers--not parlaying, or struggling or prepared attempts" (PW II, 438)--or at least to confine semiosis to a straight and true passage of feeling from one soul to another. Ideally, Leaves of Grass acts as a spirited transparent medium organically grounded in the inarticulate speech of the heart. Because it already accords with feeling, it need not be comprehended. In this way, feeling-presence is preserved, and Whitman's unique experience stays permanently fixed as the central force guiding readers' understanding.

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" subverts this conception of poetry and poets. The communicative model Whitman sets up in the poem belies the notion of original, heart-centered poetry insusceptible to interpretation. Exchanges of feeling rely upon an undeniably semiotic process that prevents any individual from mastering the writerly-readerly effects such exchanges are subject to. It may be objected that the poem's conclusion does, in fact, postulate an end to or a controlling center of discourse, of composition and interpretation, but actually the opposite is the case. Presumably, what overrides or circumscribes signification would be a nonsign, a "transcendental signified" that, although governing the play of signifiers, would remain apart from and unaffected by the game it regulates. But at the end of the poem, the boy asks for and receives "some clew" (l. 158), a "vapor, a look, a song," not a thing in itself, a loving comrade, a mystical truth, or anything else that would answer his longing and end his song of desire and loss:

A word then, (for I will conquer it,)
The word final, superior to all,
Subtle, sent up--what is it?-I listen;
Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?
                                                                        (ll. 160-64)

Though "final, superior to all," "the key, the word up from the waves" (l. 179) is still a word, a message that must be "whispered" and "listened" to. In asking for a sign and not a presence, the boy resists the vanity and fruitlessness of trying to penetrate the essence of nature and instead acknowledges the inevitable prevalence of mediation. And the "sea-waves," instead of unveiling a "transcendental signified" that would organize and delimit the anxiety-causing play of semiosis--"O I fear it is henceforth chaos!" (this phrase was later deleted)--and disclose to the boy his "destination," can proffer only an empty signifier, an enigmatic name devoid of any fixed meaning or reference:

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 DEATH,
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.
                                                        (ll. 165-73)

What critical language can adequately explain these lines, which address themselves to (if not transgress) the boundaries of sense and draw an occult connection between language and death? To interpret the sea's blank, peremptory iteration of "the low and delicious word death" solely as the boy's awakening to mortality and to the ever-impending loss of love and security is to ignore the poem's sustained and profound problematizing of meaning and expression. "Whispering" and "lisping" its repetitive language of annihilation, "hissing melodious" a "rustling," "creeping" monotone signifying nothing, the "sea" uncovers the semiotic impasse created by the boy's having subjected feelings to a signifying order. By disrupting the unmediated plenitude of auto-affection and introducing the exterior sign into the soul, or, more accurately, by realizing the sign's paradoxical interiority in all human experiences from the very beginning (the "beginning" being a fictional afterthought), the boy admits a gap into intuition and expression and suspends indefinitely the reappropriation of purified feeling.

Death is the name for this marginal void. Death can only be understood as the absence of its original, life, as body without spirit, form without content, sign without intention. "Death" is the signifier par excellence, the sign signifying signification itself. It is neither a thing nor an event, but rather a term loaded with insignificance, a name for that noncause that makes meaning and expression possible.

"Death, Death, Death, Death, Death"--the forever penultimate iteration, the unbridled repetition determining and de-terminating Whitman's poetry. It is the "fitful risings and fallings" (l. 9), the "echoes" and "reverberations" (ll. 149 and 152) randomly measuring out his verse and prolonging it, opening it to citation and mimicry, forestalling any final settlement upon a meaning, an intention, a feeling, a truth. Iteration determines the term, disseminates its content across a structural field, diffuses it into a past and a future that has no termination.

Lest this movement be confused with the antipoetic or the antihuman, we must remember that iteration (or "death") is poetry. Not simply an absolute interruption but more graphically a pulsating, rhythmic, signifying indication of thinking and feeling and speaking, "death" is indeed the corporate life of poetry. After hearing the sea whisper its sonorous, mystical, "low and delicious" litany, Whitman recalls, "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" (ll. 178-80). "Death" marks "the beginning of [his] great career," the substance of which is "the thousand responsive songs [sung] at random" (l. 177), without any determinate, meaning-full origin or destination. Though a beginning, however, "death" is not a fixed identity or presence. It is an evanescent boundary, a liminal dividing line between now and then, or, in the context of the poem, between text and pre-text. Hence, "Death" is also an end, a posterior boundary reified when Leaves of Grass is yielded up to the negating action of interpretation, when Whitman's songs take their turn as pre-texts for subsequent poems or, even worse, criticism. In other words, what Whitman realizes at the conclusion of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is his liability to the mortal effects of the sign, to the derivational quality of all utterance, and to the displacing, sequential pattern of interpretation.

From Whitman and the American Idiom. Copyright © 1991 by Louisiana State UP. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Joseph G. Kronick

When Whitman changed the title of "A Word Out of the Sea," which was first published as "A Child's Reminiscence," to "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," he substituted a trope of eternity for one of death. This substitution is also reflected in the change from the past participle to the present in the first line, which read "Out of the rocked cradle" in 1859. In his introduction to the reprint of the third edition, Roy Harvey Pearce argues that the change is front the sea as "a fact of life" to sea as "symbol" According to Pearce, the later version blurs the original's clear distinction between the literal experience of the boy and the metaphorical experience of the poet. Yet the role of memory in this poem, even in the earlier version, makes it difficult to maintain such a neat distinction between the literal and the figural. Experience becomes literal by virtue of notation, writing as memory trace, not by the facticity of direct experience.

The song is triggered by, among other things, "the memories of the bird that chanted to me." The bird's song, moreover, is a trope for the past. It is the phenomenalization of a childhood memory:

From the myriad thence-aroused words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such, as now they start, the scene revisiting.

The long series of prepositional phrases culminates with the word "death," the word "more delicious than any." Yet all elements of the series, from the rocked cradle to death, are textual markers, signs out of which his poem issues:

I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and
Taking all hints to use them—but swiftly leaping
    beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

To unite the "here and hereafter," the present and the future, the poet returns to the past. This return is prompted by the signs, particularly that of death, beyond which he must leap to bring forth his memorial song. What in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" was characterized as a gap separating author and reader is here set forth as a division between the author and his future. It And in both poems, the future is located in the past. We must distinguish Whitman's reminiscence, however, from a nostalgia for lost innocence, because the future exists in and as a memory, the notation or inscription without which there can be no temporality.

Although the adult claims to transcend language, or the hints that first stir his memory, the child refuses anything of the sort. The scene to which the adult returns is presented to us as a scene of writing, a linguistic encoding of an experience by the child who absorbs and translates the bird's song. What allows the consciousness of the past to be awakened is that this consciousness exists as a memory trace, a notation. Nor is this memory one of an unmediated childhood experience: the child is a vehicle for translation.

The first song the child hears concludes, "Singing all time, minding no time, / If we two but keep together" (LG 1860, p. 271). This lie against death, as Bloom would put it, presupposes the presence of the unnamed third, the boy as translator. This poem, more than any other by Whitman, conforms to Bloom's map of poetic crossings. Taking Bloom as our Baedeker, we find the movement from the introduction to the reminiscence is the Crossing of Election, when the poet "faces the death of the creative gift." The second, the Crossing of Solipsism, occurs after the end of the love aria and recounts his "struggles with the death of love." The third and final crossing, the Crossing of Identification, which comes after the repetition of the word "death," is "the psychic act of so identifying oneself with something or someone outside the self that time seems to stand still or to roll back or forward." This is the confrontation with death.

What is at stake in Bloom's reading is the psyche of the poet, which he fears, and correctly so, I might add, is being threatened by the critical projects of de Man and Derrida. Thus, in "Out of the Cradle," the reminiscence is not strictly "a commonplace or a memory place (but) more nearly the place of a voice, the place from which the voice of the dead break through. Hence, a topos is an image of voice or of speech, or the place where such an image is stored. The movement from topos to topos, the crossing, is always a crisis." The crossing that concerns Bloom is that between speech and writing. or topos and trope. In one of his characteristic sleight-of-hand tricks, Bloom defines the rhetoric of tropes as ethos, "the Greek word for 'custom,' 'image,' 'trait,' (which) goes back to a root meaning 'self.' " Rhetoric of persuasion he defines as pathos, "the Greek for 'passion,' (which) goes back to a root meaning to 'suffer.'" The aporia that falls between them is logos.

Bloom not only returns to rhetoric the fully humanistic concepts of self and passion but in a polemical spirit, attributes this formulation to de Man. Finally, he characterizes the crossing in the Romantic crisis-poem as

what intervenes as the crisis-point in each of the three pairs, that is, at the point where a figuration of ethos or Limitation yields to a figuration of pathos or Representation. I think that there are only two fundamental tropes, tropes of action and tropes of desire. Tropes of ethos are the language of what Emerson and Stevens call "poverty," of imaginative need, of powerlessness and necessity, but also of action, incident, and character. Tropes of pathos are the language of desire, possession, and power. In poetry, a trope of action is always an irony, until it is further reduced to metonymy and metaphor; whereas a trope of imaginative desire always begins as a synecdoche, until it is further expanded to hyperbole and metalepsis, the trope that reverses temporality.

I quote this lengthy passage because it reveals how his dialectic moves toward a union that denies not temporality, and a linear temporality at that, but irony, that which threatens representation, the psyche, and the linear temporality upon which Bloom's genealogy of poets depends. The dialectic between ethos and pathos takes place at each of the three crossings, but he significantly drops any mention of an aporia and substitutes identification, which has its beginning in synecdoche. In other words, he opposes Coleridgean symbolism to de Manian allegory .Whatever Bloom may say about misreadings, his theory always asserts that reading is possible; that is, language allows the mediation between consciousnesses and between mind and world. The crisis, for Bloom, is the self-created abyss that opens up between the psyche and the object of desire. The abyss, furthermore, is necessary for the continuity of Bloom's genealogy because it is the place where the poet transumes his precursors and thereby transforms the abyss, or aporia, into a logos, or an image of voice.

Bloom's theory of crossings may well have been derived from Whitman's "Out of the Cradle," just as his concept of the anxiety of influence appears to be directly indebted to Emerson, particularly the Emerson of "Self-Reliance" and "The American Scholar," but not the Emerson of "Quotation and Originality." Let us, therefore, return to the child, whom we left listening to the bird's song. The trope here is, once again, prosopopoeia, which appears to confirm the song as an image of voice. Furthermore, there can be no question of the boy's identification with the bird. What, therefore, is the nature of this identification ? For Bloom, the relation must be a dialectical one between the singers and the poet. The song, however, denies the presence of a listener, for the denial of time depends strictly upon the birds' mutual fulfillment of desire for one another. The poet, consequently, is an intruder, a third element that does not dialectically subsume the two; he disrupts their harmony. As the translator, he gives voice not to the birds but, as the introduction makes clear, to his memory of them, making the song a memory of place and not a place of voice. And since the song is a reminiscence, a function of memory, we can conclude that it owes its appearance to its pastness, not to a fictive present. It has existence only as a memory of words, as notation.

The continuity of the song does not depend on the fulfillment of desire; it depends on the absent object of desire, an absence already "present" before the disappearance of the she-bird. Thus, the boy's role does not change; he continues as translator: "Listened, to keep, to sing—now translating the notes, / Following you, my brother" (LG 1860, p. 272).

The boy, however, is not the only translator in the poem; there is also the mockingbird. In " A Word Out of the Sea," "imitation" means not representation but repetition. Throughout the course of his lament, the he-bird warns its mate not to confuse the voice of the sea with his own or asks the "husky-voiced sea" to cease so his own voice can be heard. The opposition between the voices, the bird's and the sea's, equates the absence out of which poetry emerges with the word out of the sea, which is "death." Thus, the sea at once drowns out the voice of the bird, echoes it, and answers it. All three modes of response are a translation of the bird's song; both sea and bird speak the word "death," the word out of which language begins. The bird sings to the sea, "Murmur! Murmur on! / O murmurs—You yourselves make me continue to sing, / know not why" (LG 1860, p. 274). Whitman later canceled these lines, possibly because he wished to obscure the semiosis that makes the bird's, the sea's, and the boy's songs all intertranslations and replace it with a more schematic opposition between the sea and the bird. Yet he kept these lines (except for the final two words):

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.

The trio of bird, sea, and boy all echo the "undertone," the "secret hissing" of the word "death." Perhaps Whitman's decision to call himself simply a "bard" instead of the "bard of love" was a repressing of the union between love and death. Nevertheless, it is the echoing of the songs in the boy's soul that calls him forth as the bard.

This awakening to his calling, however, is another of Whitman ' s retrospective recapitulations of his genesis. But into this triad he inserts a fourth, the adult who is also a translator:

Bird! (then said the boy's Soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing ? or is it
    mostly to me?
For I that was a child, my tongue' s use sleeping,
Now that I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for—I awake
And already a thousand singers—a thousand songs,
    clearer, louder, more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to live
    within me,
Never to die.

It becomes increasingly uncertain at this point who speaks: is it the boy, his soul or the adult? The moment of hearing appears to be the moment of writing, for it is only in the recapitulation that he hears the bird. Experience is an a posteriori reconstruction that does not make the past present to consciousness but projects it into the future: "O you demon, singing by yourself—projecting me, O solitary me, listening—never more shall I cease imitating, perpetuating you" (LG 1860, p. 276): Whereas in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the poet projects himself into the future, here language, in the form of the bird's song, projects him. Projection, furthermore, is the trope of metalepsis, for it allows the a posteriori reconstruction of the past to appear as the past and, hence, creates the fiction of genealogy, for what the song awakens in him is yet to be fulfilled. The adult will go on "imitating" (Whitman later canceled this word) and thereby, "perpetuating" the bird's song.

The bird's projection of him and his perpetuating of the bird appear at first to be homologous. The bird's song awakens him to his calling, which he realizes in the future, and he reaches back into the past and perpetuates the bird's song, thus guaranteeing it an afterlife. The process, however, is that of translation, which exchanges not writer's poetry for bird's lament but present for past. The present exists in the mind as a memory without an object. For the song, he writes, will

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.

According to Bloom, this moment of crisis where the poet questions his identity as poet has its fulfillment in the answer, the word whispered by the sea—"death." But death can never be what Bloom calls a topos, an image of voice, for it resists representation. "The word final, superior to all" is a trope—prosopopoeia, to be more precise; When he asks of the sea, "Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?" he gives not an image to the voice but a face, a figure, instead. Whereas image requires some relationship between the figural and the literal—it is, in other words, a representation—prosopopoeia is a trope operating in a system of translation.

In the final stanza, the song of death enters into this system:

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, awakened 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.

Memory functions as translation, a fusing together of all songs into one, that of death. This poem of poetic calling does not end in the denial of time that Bloom's theory requires. The place where the voice breaks through is always already the past. We might even say that because the present exists as a memory , the voice is only heard as an echo, a repetition that is belatedly characterized as having already been experienced. Finally, the orderly process of translation breaks down as the songs "awakened from that hour" are coexistent with "the word up from the waves," the word "The sea whispered me." The Me Myself is a trope for death. Whitman's tropes of song, sea, and death are, in view of his master trope, metonymy, all images of writing. What Whitman promised in "Song of Myself" to reveal as "the origin of all poems" proves to be memory , the perpetuating of song as a translation without boundaries.

from American Poetics of History: From Emerson to the Moderns. Copyright © 1984 by Louisiana State UP.

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