Walt Whitmans Out of the Cradle

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ALT Whitman's most beautiful, most perfectly formed poem, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," presents us with an essential question about his ever-perplexing life and career: why should Whitman, already famous, indeed notorious, for casting off the formal patterns that so long had shaped the music of English poetry^why should he now devise his own new patterns of rhythmic form? In his earliest poems Whitman had adopted the traditional forms that specify the number and position of strong and weak syllables per line and that also often employ rhyme. As it either fulfills or thwarts our expectations, this pattern of strong versus weak syllables (also usually implying long versus short) shapes an underlying rhythm, the basic current of music then thought essential to lift poems to a higher aesthetic and/or moral level. Sidney Lanier and others correctly identified this as a triple rhythm (3/8 or 3/4), though Lanier himself imposed, or at least implied, uniform time values more appropriate to actual music than to language in which such matters are always exible and individual. Whitman touched off his revolt against these conformities in the poem now known as "Song of Myselfa poem declaring itself to be a new Bible or guidebook for the beliefs and values of the loving all-inclusive society he imagined America might become. These beliefs provoke much of the dazzling imagery and symbolism that electrify this amazing poem. The self it celebrates must explore and expand, passing outward to identify with all existencean inclusiveness displayed in the poem's language, form, and subject matter, and shown in verse styles ranging from fiat arrhythmic prose all the way to those traditional forms he was supposedly overthrowing. This inclusiveness overrode his deepest doubts and fears: that he was alone, cut off from the lives of othersfrom the mother, from the lover, from his society's intentions and expectations. As most critics note, however, with age and experience Whitman's private sensualities, desires, and joys lost much of their sur 2008 by W. D. Snodgrass




prise and shock, offering fewer and less startling transformations of language. Meantime the world around him had also changed, growing ominously farther from his ideals and hopesrushing into Civil War with its hatreds, greeds, and prejudices multiplying, its homophobia spreading. Even worse his private journals reveal that the "manly love of comrades" he had so strongly championed had proven, at times, more of a torment than a solution. Whitman's later masterpiece, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," deals directly with his fears of isolation and abandonment that his beliefs had veiled and reveals a self emptied of meaning by the loss of love. Death, earlier the great dilemmaboth for his doctrines and for the structure of "Song of Myselfnow becomes the one solution that can rejoin him to the great Mother, the Sea. During years of revision and experiment, both poetic and personal (he had once considered becoming an itinerant lecturer and preacher), much ofthe transformative power of his beliefs had been replaced by an interest in the transcendent power of music. His style was less influenced by homiletic writers such as Martin Tupper in favor ofthe more musical efforts of such poets as Tennyson. Unfortunately this idiom allowed him to relapse at times into old-fashioned "poetical" language, yet his deepening discovery of internal and personal rhythms finally led him to musics that charged his poems with emotional enrichments unavailable to others or to himself while he depended on traditional verse forms or on conscious visionary structures of belief. During the mid and the late nineteenth century, many English poets, influenced by folk songs and ballads, had turned from the strict syllable count of classical prosody toward stress verse in which only accented syllables are counted. These stresses, of course, fall more or less equally in time as the main rhythmic accents; lighter syllables fit in as they may. Though this forgoes the subtler syncopations and vitally flexible rhythmic complications many poets had developed in the classical prosody, it does offer simple and more obvious rhythms. Many such folk songs and poems have either derived from, or developed into, nursery songs and poems: Three blind mice, three blind mice. See how they run, see how they run.



They all ran after the farmer's wife Who cut off their heads with a carving knife. Did ever you see such a sight in your life As three blind mice? The first two half-lines have three heavy monosyllables apiece, then a pause to match a rest in the melody; in the second line, each half-line has an additional light syllable. Lines 3, 4, and 5 grow to four stresses, matching the melody's accents, with several light syllables scattered between. The last Une repeats the first with one extra light syllable. Many children's rhymes"Ding, dong, bell; / Pussy's in the well," "Pease Porridge Hot," and "Hot Cross Buns"take such a form. It's a bit more surprising to hear Tennyson begin a lyric of grief with three identical single syUables: Break, break, break. On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! And I would that my tongue might utter The thoughts that arise in me . . . O, well for the fisherman's boy That he shouts with his sister at play! O, well for the sailor lad That he sings in his boat on the bay! And the stately ships go on To their haven under the hifl; But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand And the sound of voice that is stiU. Break, break, break. At the foot of thy crags, O Sea! But the tender grace of a day that is dead Will never come back to me. "Break, Break, Break" This poem, like "Out ofthe Cradle," an oceanside lament for a lost love, was deeply admired by Whitman and at times was echoed



in his own work. In 1861 he produced a direct imitation in one of his earliest Civil War poems, "Beat! Beat! Drums!" There, however, the three-beat motif is repeated, producing half-lines (as in the nursery rhyme above), a device Whitman had already tried in "Song of the Broad Axe." To visualize this technique, I will give, first, the poem's opening stanza as usually printed, then a version showing stressed syllables and the second half-lines dropped onto separate Unes. Beat! beat! drums!blow! bugles! blow! Through the windowsthrough doorsburst like a ruthless force Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation. Into the school where the scholar is studying; Leave not the bridegroom quietno happiness must he have now with his bride; Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain; So fierce you whirr and pound you drumsso shrill you bugles blow. BEAT! BEAT! DRUMS! Beat! beat! drums! blow! bug-les! blow! Through the wind-owsthrough doors burst like a ruth-less force In-to the sol-emn church, and scat-ter the con-gre-ga-tion. Into the school where the schol-ar is stud-y-ing Leave not the bride-groom qui-et no hap-pi-ness must he have now with his bride. Nor the peace-ful farm-er an-y peace


THE RHYTHM THAT ROCKS WALT'S CRADLE plough-ing his field or gath-er-ing his grain, So fierce you whirr and pound you drums so shrill you bug-les blow.

The motif, announced in the first half-line, slightly varied in the second, is then continued in half-lines of stressed verse with light syllables scattered at will. Line 4 grows to four full stress-units (as happened in both "Three Blind Mice" and "Break, Break, Break") but has no second half. Thereafter half-lines will alternate between three and four stresses: 3 plus 4, again 3 plus 4, but finally ending 4 plus 3reecting not only the added fourth stress in the last stanzas of Tennyson's lyric but also Whitman's tendency to expand a poem toward its climax, then ebb back at the enda tendency seen, for instance, in "Tears," also closely related to Tennyson's work. Later in his Civil War book, Drum-Taps, Whitman takes a daring step further, building lines not from predefined small units such as syllabic-stress feet or the measures of stress verse that disregard word-formation or other sense-units. The basic building block here is a compact, significant grouping of words like those we often form in normal speech. This may consist of a short sentence or of a complete or partial phrase which, having some element of completed meaning, is usually preceded and followed by a slight pause. Such groupings have been described as "packets of thought" that the brain assembles and delivers as units of speechneurologists refer to this process as "chunking." The poetic line, then, will have either two or three such chunks or segments, each rhythmically related to the first segment, their theme or motif. The effect is much like the theme-with-variations heard in music. This first appears in Whitman's later work DrumTaps, in a splendid short poem, "Cavalry Crossing a Ford," notable for its brilliant camera work. Starting from a long-distance landscape shot, it zooms in for individual close-ups, then backs off again for a symbolic representation of the original serpentine image, identifying the cavalry as friendly and so dramatically rede-



fining the readers emotional response. Again I will present this first as usually printed, then make visual the rhythmical effect, in "Cavalry Crossing a Ford": A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands. They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sunhark to the musical clank. Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink. Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the negligent rest on the saddles. Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the ford^w