December 24, 2014

Whitman's curious warble: Out of the cradle

"Our readers may, if they choose, consider as our Christmas or New Year's present to them, the curious warble by Walt Whitman." So said the Saturday Press issue for December 24, 1859, an issue which included Whitman's poem "A Child's Remembrance," later renamed "A Word Out of the Sea." Perhaps better known by its opening lines, "Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking," the poem went through several versions in Whitman's lifetime. Here is how its most frequently republished version begins:

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 mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out 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 fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous'd words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
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...

Whitman had read an early version of the poem at the famous Pfaff's and one of those in attendance, Henry Clapp, secured its publication. Though one reviewer called it "hopeless drivel," many scholars today consider the poem one of Whitman's best. The poem offers somewhat of a narrative: the speaker remembers a time on the beach in his boyhood when he sees two birds which soon fly away; one never returns. Many have seen the poem as describing the birth of a poet, particularly as it opens with a cradle, before culminating in a profound grasp of nature and death. The poem, then, explores both a beginning and an ending. "Pains and joys," Whitman says he has since explored, "here and hereafter."

My American literature professor as an undergraduate, Dr. Joseph Zaitchik, once told me that the opening lines of this poem represented the best-sounding line in American poetry. "Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking" has a certain cadence, a rising and falling, a harshness with "k" and "g" sounds, along with more sonorous "o" and "s" sounds. Those sounds, perhaps, represent the same ups and downs, opposing ideas of beginning and ending, in the poem itself.

With this post, I have officially posted 1,000 articles of new content, all exploring various aspects of American literary history (mostly in the 19th century). I have had the great opportunity of rediscovering forgotten writers, of enthusiastically promoting some of the greatest, and sharing it all with you, the readers of the American Literary Blog, since my first post in December 2009. I dedicate the entirety of this project to Dr. Zaitchik, who first inspired me to love American literature.

As I retire from adding new posts to the American Literary Blog, I want to offer some of Whitman's own words from this poem: "The rest might not, but I have treasur'd every note." After the narrator calls out to the sea, the poem ends with an understanding that, although there was a finality in what he learned from the bird, the moment was in fact just the starting point for him:

Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper'd me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
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.
Which I do not forget.
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang 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,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper'd me.


  1. I am still looking forward to the analysis of the literary pieces from the 1800s, which takes me back to Simone Klugman's "Enlightened Despots". Whitman's words are concise but exudes so much passion and euphemisms.

  2. The poem is an excellent example of Whitman's romanticism and his recurring themes of love, sexuality, death, and loss
    English Literature