Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking by Walt Whitman: A Commentary
from- "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"
"Out of the cradle endlesly rocking, out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle, 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 mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive, out from the patches of briers and blackberries...
Once Paumanok, when the lilac-scent was in the air and fifth-month grass was growing, up this seashore in some briers, two feather'd guests from Alabama, two together, and their nest, and 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 crouched on her nest, silent, with bright eyes, and everyday I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, cautiously peering, absorbing, translating...
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, mending no time, while we two keep together..."
In what Walt Whitman called "a reminiscence sing ", he described a coming of age...or understanding...or wisdom...or truth... It was a bond with nature and eternity that had lifted him to a sense of unity with the greater world. His experience is fresh and current, similar to the boyhood awakening he describes. He is in tears as he recounts the experience, a member of both past and present. Introducing the event he sets memories in motion with the vivid description of the bird that chanted to him whom he calls Brother, the sad half-moon swollen with tears, the "beginning notes of yearning and love ", the thousand responses of his heart, and "the myriad thence-aroused words". He unites pain and joy, "here and hereafter " from that night when the poet within him was born.
As a boy he found his way out of a "cradle endlessly rocking " to the rythmn of closed-minded tradition and beliefs. He found his way into a much wider world of soul and body, nature and expression. Walking the Long Island (Paumanok) seashore alone, scent of lilac in the air (which will be important to Whitman throughout his life), tall grass growing, the boy witnesses a pair of birds tending to their nested eggs, and finds wonder and enlightenment in the commitment to their union that these two members of nature freely exhibited. It was love outside of mankind. It was something man haden't invented or conjured. It was real and lasting. The pair had flown a great distance from their winter home to this their northern residence; and the wind carried them to where they belonged, over rivers and mountains. They cared nothing for time, and sang happily for anyone or no one to hear.
Whitman watched and listened to them day after day. He imagined he understood their language and their actions. He imagined himself part of that family of birds, and his daily observations became increasingly important to him. The personalities of the winged pair became kin to him.
from- "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"
"...Till of a sudden, maybe kill'd, unknown to her mate, one forenoon the she-bird crouch'd not on the nest, nor return'd that afternoon, nor the next, nor ever appear'd again..."
One morning this new "family life" changed for the boy, and for the birds. The female left the nest... and did not return. The loss was very real for the remaining bird and for the boy Whitman. Through the rest of the summer, the boy's awakened senses brought him to a rare understanding of the place all beings hold in the universe. The meaning of the tragic calls of the lonely bird were clear to him; and the reality of death was a part of life.
Whitman's life-changing summer was a corridor of understanding that led him to a lifetime of poetry and expression. His description of the experience shows his recognition of and respect for life, earth and time itself. Like a great work of art he paints a picture of the solitary bird "amid the slapping waves" calling for his mate, in sad songs that the boy understood all too well. "Yes my brother, I know. The rest might not, but I have treasured every note..." Blending himself in the shadows and the moonlight as if one with the night, the boy listened and watched "the white arms of the breakers tirelessly tossing"... "listened long and long."
Recounting his winged brother's song, "Soothe! soothe! soothe!" come the waves one behind another. "But my love soothes not me, not me" Here the rhythms of the waves, the boy and the bird are shown to be uniting as the words repeat like a rocking cradle. The moon, "heavy with love, with love"... "the sea pushes upon the land with love, with love." "Loud! loud! loud! Loud I call to you, my love!..." And to the moon the bird... the boy hears... calls "...I think you could give me my mate back again if you only would, for I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look." He calls to the heavens, "O rising stars! Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you..." His attention drifts to his own "caroling", and how he must be clear and loud; and then he must be softly silent and still to hear the response of his love over the constant noisy sea.
"And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night. O past! O happy life! O songs of joy! In the air in the woods, over fields, loved! loved! loved! loved! loved! But my mate no more, no more with me! We two together no more."
from- "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"
"... The aria sinking, all else continuing, the stars shining, the winds blowing, the notes of the bird continuous echoing, with angry angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning, on the sands of Paumanok's shore gray and rustling, the yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging, drooping, the face of the sea almost touching...
The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying, the love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last temultuously 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 drown'd secret hissing to the outsetting bard..."
It is what this summer of enlightenment meant and did to Whitman that makes this poem so interesting and so beautiful. It is easy to imagine the boy standing in the waves, in awe of the universe, feeling himself a part of the sea, his hair standing weightless in the wind pricking the heavens. He saw himself joining the universe in a spiritual sense as he describes this way... "The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying, the love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last tumultuously bursting..." He was at last unleashed. He saw his life's purpose calling himself "the outsetting bard". "... is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me? For I that was a child, my tongues use sleeping, now I have heard you, now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake... A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die"
On the beach that September night Whitman felt the fate of the "she bird" in the lapping of the waves at his feet. He also knew it to be his "unknown want"... his "destiny of me"... "the word final, superior to all..." Through the rustling of the sea at his feet, he heard the word laving him "softly all over, death, death, death, death, death." In the end Whitman would put all of the experience together with his own "awakened songs" to define his new understanding of life and death. He finishes his "reminiscence sing" with a description of the most powerful thing he came away with... "...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."
More of Whitman
For the full text of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking", and other Whitman works see:
Walt Whitman is widely considered a "Transcendentalist Poet". Transcendentalism was and is a philosophical view of man's relationship with his creator, his environment and himself in the context of the mind, the body and the abilities he had been given and had learned. The well-educated and intuitive men and women who adopted this view struggled to influence the world in a way that would guide others toward a strong self-reliance, a higher level of thought and a higher set of values.
© 2011 Mr. Smith