University of Novi SadFaculty of Philosophy
Department of English Language and Literature
XIX Century American Literature
Walt Whitman: Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
mr Nataa Karanfilovi Reka Na2010
A little about the authorWalt Whitman, the author of the first most unconventional and extraordinary collection of poems in American literature, Leaves of Grass, was born on May 31, in 1819 on Long Island (which is referred to as Paumanok, its Indian name, in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking). The poet was particularly fond of this place, as it was closely associated to his childhood memories. He was educated in Brooklyn, and later served as a printers apprentice, journeyman compositor, school teacher, the editor of several newspapers, a political figure and a nurse. Whitman was deeply absorbed in a wide range of literature, including the Bible, Shakespeare, Ossian, Homer, Greek and Hindu poets, Dante, all of which influenced his later writing. The greatest literary influences for the writer were most certainly Goethes biography, Hegels philosophy, Carlyles Heroes and Hero Worship, and most importantly Emersons ideas of Transcendentalism, mainly those celebrating the power of individuality and mans oneness with nature. Meanwhile, he was also acquainted with many aspects of the metropolis, and was a frequent visitor of the opera, which had an obvious effect on the themes and manner of his poetry. He perceived himself as an average man, however, it is unquestionable that he combined the figure of the average man with his unique qualities, which distinguished him as a poet. What in great part differentiated him from the average man, was his hypersensitivity, which contributed to his enthusiastic pursuit of emotional freedom through love, and social freedom through democracy, the two things which he valued above everything else. His frequent and forceful declarations of his democratic love for man lead to the belief of him being a homosexual, to which he later himself confessed. Such sensitivity and sensuousness appear to be primary forces in his poetical works - Out of the Cradle is also written with great feeling and shows the poets sensitivity towards the external world even as a child. Avoiding traditional elements, Whitman applied free verse in his poetry, associating themes and melodies with great freedom and suggestiveness. This is how he compiled and published Leaves of Grass, which was to show how man might achieve for himself the greatest possible freedom within the limits of natural law, for the mind and body through democracy, for the heart through love and for the soul through religion. (Hart 826.)The poem
Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking was published in the collection entitled Leaves of Grass (Whitman published the first edition in 1855), in the section called Sea-Drift a group of eleven poems, compiled in 1881. This group of poems is one of the poets most pleasant arrangements, reaching deep into his childhood memories, and is held together by the impression of the sea and the bleak an influence that became the heart of his acceptance of the tragic in life. The poem was first published under the title A Childs Reminiscence in the Christmas issue of New York Saturday Press, whose editor, Henry Clapp, was Whitmans friend. The poem was revised several times and in 1860 and 1867 the title was A Word Out of the Sea.The poem is profoundly autobiographical, in the sense that it reaches to the core of the poets own experience how he became a poet and how his song awoke. It is not known whether a personal experience of loss served as its influence, but it is certainly an interpretation of love and death.
Whitman himself claimed that the purport of this wild and plaintive song, well-enveloped and eluding definition, is positive and unquestionable, like the effect of music. The piece will bear reading many times perhaps, indeed only comes forth, as from recesses, by many repetition. (Moon 207.)Swinebourns conclusion about Out of the Cradle most certainly reflects a general impression of the poem, according to which it is the most wonderful thing I have read for years and years There is such beautiful skill and subtle power in every word of it. (Moon 207.)THEMES
Whitman considered great poetry as inevitable as life, declaring that the spirit of the poet should correspond to his countrys spirit. Supporting his claim, he created his verse in such a way as to be an embodiment of both. Therefore, the themes and subjects of his poetry are common people reflecting their physical and spiritual self, both past and present conveyed in the eternal now, liberty, democracy and equality, and the oneness of nature and man. Although life itself is the source of his art, Whitman implies a general spirit that pervades the world, therefore illuminating the internal reality of things. (Paci, 184.) Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking condenses Whitmans themes of love, life and death, nature, loss, and their relation to poetry, especially his poetry, into a single setting and situation. Haviland Millers opinion of the poem, declaring that the erotic sounds and movements, as in Wagners music evoke birth, love, loss and death asserts this claim.
Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking transports the reader into Whitmans boyhood when he recalls his memories of once in Paumanok, when the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing (Whitman 24.). Whitmans words evoke memories associated with his childhood, the region of Long Island, while intertwining a complex web of themes and symbols, thus giving the poem a richly allegorical characteristic.Life and Death
However distinct and contrasted they may seem, in the case of this poem, it is most appropriate to treat the themes of life and death as a single unit. Suffice it to say that Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking deals most prominently with the loss of a loved one. Observing the desolating love of two birds and projecting his own sense of loss onto the song of the he-bird, while experiencing an ultimate revelation, the poet reconstructs a childhood moment in his life.
Even in his earlier poetry, Whitman discovered that life and death are to be treated as a single unit, as they are somehow one thing yet, death is the pre-eminent theme for poetry, since it is the enveloping force, the beginning and end framing the middle life. (Van Doren, 46.) This is how he made the supreme subject of his poetry death, and, while the theme goes through many modulations and variations from one poem to another, it proves consistent. Life serves as the theme, but death is its motivating force, because it is only through death that life may be understood. Even in the opening stanza, the reader can perceive the poets attempts at fusing life and death. Whitman sings of the endlessly rocking cradle, an allusion to endless birth, thus rebirth. He also mentions the Ninth-month (Whitman 3.), at first glance symbolic of the nine months of the gestation period, therefore birth itself; however, contrastively, when more closely observed, September is the ninth month of the year, and the first month of autumn, thus representative of death. The poet then continues with images of life, which will later serve as a contrast to the allusions to death he talks of the fifth-month, with the lilac scent in the air and the grass growing. As opposed to the allusion to autumn, Whitman now implies spring, the birth and rebirth of nature. This is how the poet emphasizes the merging of life and death, and the opening lines, therefore, do not only bring together death and life, but death in life.The theme of death is only explicitly introduced in the concluding stanzas, and praised through the mystical music of the sea. It is the passage when the sea speaks its word when the question of death in Whitman is aroused. It is only when he hears the oceans final assertion of death that he notes My own songs awaked from that hour (Whitman 178.). This suggests that the discovery of death had made Whitman a poet and this is the way he tells the reader. While the bird sang to the boys souls questions (Whitman 142.), he made the discovery that will turn the boy into a poet the fact that death, loss, and suffering is the source of poetry of high distinction. (Paic, 198.)The symbolism applied by Whitman is often multilayered, which means that most of his poetic images are attributed more than one interpretation. This is illustrated by the fact that the sea can be thought of as a metaphorical representation of a grave, yet contrastively a cradle as well (Van Doren 47.) the symbol of death and life together. It is the sea which provides the final word on the matters previously aroused - death. At the same time, endlessly rocking, it implies the incessant cycle of life, birth, death and rebirth. Having been exposed to the devastating feeling of loss and separation, it is finally the sea which the boy inquires for answers. He is in search for a solution to the reason of the occurrence of such suffering, and invokes the sea into this exploration. The word final, superior to all (Whitman 161.) is death, a universal feeling, inevitable to all. The boy is thus exposed to the experience of death, finally concluding that it is the lesson of loss which can lead to artistic development and maturity, making the central theme of the poem the birth of poetry out of death.
The word death conveys two meanings for the poet. In its literal meaning, it does allude to an eternal end, yet at the same time it hints at the birth of a mature man, a poet, which the boy has become. Although the image of the cradle and death are perceived as sharp contrasts, Whitman manages to intertwine them in his poem. The poem asserts the belief in the oneness of life and death, and the boys conversion into a mature poet upon the full comprehension of loss and death justifies this claim.The seas response of death, death, death, amplifies the process and transience of life. It provides the ground for life, with its joys, longings, sorrows, love and laments, however, it is also the final phase, the end. Death is the framework of the larger picture, it is through which we are truly able to see life. However, for the poet, death is not a pessimistic truth; rather, he handles it with calmness, and the passage has a soothing melody, containing phrases like hissing melodious (Whitman 170.) and laving me softly all over (Whitman 172.). Robin Fast claims that at the end of the poem the boy reconciles himself to death, realizing that death cannot truly separate the dead from the living, and life is part of a larger reality which includes all. (Wohlpart, 77-78.)The poem speaks of life coming out of the cradle of death, and concludes with the image of the cradle rocked by an old crone, symbolizing the closeness of the end, death. The old woman, however, may also symbolize a universal awareness of death, realized by all.Whitman contrasts the images of life and death, yet at the same time merges them. He gives death a dual nature representing both an end, but also new beginnings. Through the experience of death, the poet recognizes how it provokes emotions that drive a poet and arouse his songs. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking is, therefore, one of Whitmans great expressions of life and death.
Love The message of love in the poem is captured in the mutual love of the mocking birds. The boy, who is distinguished by his sensitivity, is able to fully interpret the lamenting tune of the he-bird following the loss of his mate. Translating the birds song into human language and the birds experience into human experience, Whitman most explicitly reveals the theme of love, which remains unfulfilled, therefore, closely connecting it with the theme of loss and its product, grief.
At first the mocking birds seem to be the embodiment of everlasting happiness, never to part. They paint the picture of harmony and eternal love, Singing all time, minding no time, while we two keep together (Whitman 39-40.). However, the illusion of undisturbed happiness proves to be deceptive. The subsequent disappearance of the she-bird causes her mate to gradually lose hope of his beloveds return, and sink under the burden of lost love. At the end of his song the bird attempts to silence the sea in hope of hearing the responding song of his mate: And do wait a moment you husky-noisd sea, For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me (Whitman 107-108.). However, he fails and is therefore bound to realize the hopelessness of awaiting the return of his beloved We two together no more (Whitman 129.).However, it is important to note that the birds love does not fade with separation, but contrastively, rather intensifies. Whitman here implies that their love is everlasting, forever, and no time or place can annihilate it. The feeling of love is amplified simultaneously with the feeling of despair and experience of final loss.The boys perception of the experience of loss is notorious. As he gains insight into the lesson of fulfilled love contrasted by that of unfulfilled love, he becomes ecstatic and strange tears (Whitman 139.) stroll down his cheeks. He is deeply moved by the identification of lost love and hope. The boy is able to identify with the sorrows of the bird, the pain of unfulfilled love, as he reassures the now solitary singer (Whitman 150.) that he had treasured his every word. This is the moment of revelation for the boy and the discovery leading to him becoming a poet. His first impulse is also to sing of unfulfilled love, of what he had learned, and he notes that his song will be more sorrowful than the birds. A sweet hell has been aroused in his soul, and he feels that he is destined to sing it the sweetness of fulfilled love, but the hell of the loss of it.
Therefore, Whitman gives higher priority to the negative aspects of the experience of love, emphasizing the tragedy of unfulfilled love, rather than the happiness of fulfilled love. At the same time, he makes a generalization of the loss of a beloved, a feeling that his readers as well as himself can identify with.The poet attributes great significance to the sorrow of lost affection, lost love. It is through the birds carol of loss and unfulfilled love that the boy, the outsetting bard (Whitman 143.), is introduced to the tragic aspects of human existence, and the songs of fulfilled and unfulfilled love become the source of the his revelation, his transformation into a poet, and the source of his own songs which have awakened from that hour (Whitman 178.).Loss and separationThe experience of loss...