Out of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking: Summary & Analysis

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      Introduction. Out of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking is a profound poem. Whitman’s greatest passion was the opera. He frequented operas. The magnificent music and high melodrama left an impression which went to extract great poetry from him. The structure, the music, the flow of the lines in this poem, the words like arias, and its recitatives recalls an opera to the mind. To quote Walter Sutton: “The influence of music is seen in the device, inspired by the model of the opera of the arias or bird songs, of fulfillment and frustration, which provide interludes of lyric expression of the feelings and emotions aroused by the events presented and analyzed in the narrative and dramatic framework of the poem”. James Miller says that “for literary comradeship, Whitman frequented a Broadway Bohemian beer parlor and restaurant known as Pratt’s - a hangout for the unconventional, the daring, the clever and the witty At Pratt’s could be found Henry Clapp, editor of the advanced ‘Saturday Press’ where Whitman first published Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking as A Child’s Reminiscence.”

      The poem Out of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking, is a narrative reminiscence of a childhood experience with its drama of the boy as out setting bard listening by the seaside to the mokingbird’s carol of lonesome love and the sea’s answering kiss of ‘death’. It seems to be a veiled treatment of some personal love-tragedy of the poet. There is a touch of personal involvement and anguish.

      It is ranked as one of the best poems of Whitman. The poem abounds in symbols. The symbols, the images which he treats often in Leaves of Grass, find a place in this poem. He has introduced the sea image, the bird image, the child image, the night and day images, the sun and the moon images. As Geoffrey Dutton put it, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking washes up with the sea images of birth, death, love and music.” All through Whitman’s life as a poet, the elemental rhythm of the sea, its ability to contain both storm and calm, was the great example of what his verse might do. The poem is a highly complex dramatic lyric which fulfills Whitman’s youthful dream of ‘expressing’ this liquid mystic theme. Indeed, the words ‘liquid, mystic’ describe the structure and content of the poem. It has a musical structure containing recitative, aria and chorus. Whitman himself wrote that “the purport of this wild and plaintive song, well-enveloped, and eluding definition, is positive and unquestionable like the effect of music.

      Summary. With the tremendous opening sentence, the poet takes the reader to the little boy who wandered out under the yellow half-moon on the Long Island shore. This image of joyful loneliness is given for companion the image of joyful birth, and love in the two mockingbirds from Alabama, who have come north to make their nest on the shore. Their wonderful aria is the simplicity of joy:

Shine: shine! shine!
Four down your warmth, great sun:
While we bask, we two together

      The child also witnesses their sorrow from separation, when the she-bird disappears, may be killed. Any work of great art is the result of a continuous turmoil of emotions of joy and pathos. The child is happy to see the gay mocking birds. It is filled with sorrow at the grief of the separation of the birds. This recalls a similar sequence to the mind, when Valmiki poured forth the immortal epic ‘Ramayana’. Valmiki felt overjoyed at seeing two krauncha birds in love. The she-bird gets killed. The other krauncha feels terrible unbearable agony, at the sudden disaster, Valmiki’s mind had reached the timely mood. The seed for poetic talent was embedded in him. The poignant moment for its fruition had neared. There was turmoil within him. The pent up emotion got an outlet in the form of the ‘Ramayana’. So also the poetic talent was surging within Whitman like the waves of the sea. It wanted to gush out. It was awaiting an outlet. The depth of the agony of the he-bird separated from his lovebird, ignited the poetic fervor in Whitman. He poured forth poem after poem, which resulted in ‘Leaves of Grass’ - the Epic of America.

      The poem Out of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking, is In the form of an opera. It is narrative in style. It introduces the theme in the Prologue. There is a dialogue which elaborates the theme of life, love and death and an epilogue which summarizes the mysteries of life and death. Some critics describe the poem as an elegy on the death of a close friend. Whatever it is, the poem makes fine reading with sublime thoughts embedded in it.


      Symbolic Poem. James Miller describes the poem as ‘a private love poem’ directed not outward but inward, in on itself and the poet’s soul. It is heavily symbolic by projection backward in time to a boy’s experience and outward in space to the birds’ love drama. It is a ‘reminiscence’ of the crucial semi-mystic experience which made a poet out of a boy and gave him a central theme. The whole effect of the opening lines is by their very frenzy to sweep the reader into the experience of overwhelming memory that takes possession of the poet and carries him back:

By these tears a little boy again, throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves.

      What Went into Making Whitman the Poet. The poem shows the ingredients which went to make the poet Whitman. The child image-the boy-shows the inquisitiveness with which the child goes in the outside world to know many things. He went on the beach and gazed at the waters of the sea-the sea image representing birth, fertility and he feels distracted by the sight of two mockingbirds in love. The birds are in an ecstatic mood not bothered about the world. They feel they are in Paradise. The poet after setting the scene of the beach, the boy as the audience, the birds as the actors imagine that the birds are in a bliss-filled world. They do not know the shadow of death lurking behind them. The he bird suddenly becomes grief-stricken to know he is separated forever from the she-bird. Their domestic bliss is destroyed by the disappearance of the she-bird. As the small boy listens, the he-bird pours fourth his great carol song of “lonesome love” ... The lament is similar to that of a bereaved lover. It lingers. It requests the sea: “Blow up sea winds along Paumanok’s shore; I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me”. Its heart is heavy with deep sorrow for its mate. It is not convinced that the mate will not return. It calls out loudly across the waves of the sea for its mate. It feels it sees illusions of its mate everywhere - in the moon, on the sea, and on the land:

“Land! Land! O Land!
For I am almost sure I see her dimly  whichever way I look”

      The bird is helpless all alone, it feels incomplete without its mate, it feels solitary and thinks it cannot exist without its mate. It feels like a lost child craving for a soothing touch. The bird carols loudly so that the mate can hear. But no: after its wild lamentations the bird comes to realize that:

“Loved! Loved !Loved! Loved! Loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more”..

      The mockingbird’s outcry of bereavement has a special significance: “The aria’s meaning” deposited in the soul of the boy is never explicitly stated but It is hinted at when the poet exclaims:

The messenger there arous'd, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.

      Miller aptly says: “The mockingbird symbolizes the creative transfiguration brought by consuming but unfulfilled love. And when the sea sends forth its word of death as the ‘clew’ the boy requests, the ‘outsetting bard’ has found the theme of all his songs.”

      A sort of colloquy begins between the trio-the bird, the sea, the boy’s soul-wherein the boy recognizes the origin of poetic inspiration - which put forth... “A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die....” He identifies himself with the bird as a solitary singer. The boy is no longer innocent. The poet’s poetic talent has matured, there is no feeling of unsatisfied love, he is no longer the “peaceful child” but he is pent up with countless emotions which took the shape of poems - his legacy to mankind. The bird is symbolic of his soul. He educates his soul on the mystery of life and death. He feels there is still something lacking. On hearing intently he gets the clue from the whispers of the sea....

“Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death”
The outcome of the hearing of that due resulted in
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.

      Life and Death Cycle: The subject-life and death-gets a fine treatment by the poet. The poem in a simple manner delineates the seene which aroused the simmering poetic talent within him. The separation which death brings leaves mankind, animals and birds frustrated, miserable and sorrowful. The feelings in the animal and human world are the same. They enjoy the daylight. But the night comes looming large suggesting the impending death to one and all. The bird grieves, longs for the departed one. Yet death and life are like the night and day. There is no beginning or end to the cycle of death and fife. It is like a cradle rocking to and fro, similar to the waves of the sea.

      Mystery of Dead: While the opening sentence of the poem moved into the mysteries of life is a blend of joy and sorrow, hopes and despair, meetings-and separations - the two closing sentences move into the mystery of death. Death is inevitable to all that is living. He gives the image of the cradle, death in life, life in death, rocked by the old crone, the fierce old mother, the sea.

      Hymn to Death: The turmoil, the feelings of conflict of love, separation, resolve into placidity as one reaches the end of the poem. The bereaved lover’s lament reaches the reconciliation with the acceptance of the ways of life and death. The poem appears to be a hymn to death, the song of praise is reached through the turbulent awakening of love which becomes sublime after separation. It is only a physical separation. The soul never dies. The poet enhances the word death showing it is some, happening which every living creature, bird, animal and man have to overcome.

      The poem becomes ‘emotions recollected in tranquility.’ The separation of the birds, the mournful song of the bird, left an indelible impression on the sympathetic mind of the child, which added to the making of a poet out of him.


1. 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 ...

      These lines introduce the theme of Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. The poet recollects a particular sequence which he saw in his childhood and which went to make him the poet. He calls himself the ‘chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter’ - showing what the profession of a poet is. He sees himself wandering as a small boy on the sands by the sea. Inquisitively he looked at the Nature around. He saw two mockingbirds singing happily. He felt overjoyed at seeing them. He tried to figure out what they were chirping about. He felt sad to notice that the she-bird was not there. He perceived the grief of the he-bird longing for his mate. He could see the sorrowful face and hear the grief-stricken carol of the he-bird, asking the sea, sun, moon, and everything in Nature to return his mate. But reconciliation comes with the understanding that all that is born has got to die. So the poet finds his theme and sings about it in his poems: This childhood reminiscence engraved a deep mark on him which went forth to produce rich poetry from him.

2. Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved!
By my mate no more no more, with me:
We two together no more

      The poet imagines that these might have been the words the bird was trying to say. Its beloved was no longer with it. The he-bird had lost its loved one the she-bird. It carols songs of separation, longing for its mate. It requests the elements in Nature to return its mate. But it is not to be. Every living being had to die one day or the other. That realization dawns upon the bird and hence it carols “we two together no more.” living they enjoyed basking in the sun together, but now it was not same as the mate had died. This scene was an unforgettable experience the “poet which showed him the mysteries of life and death which he pictures in “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.”

3. By the sea, under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous'd, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.

      These lines reflect the reaction in the poet’s mind, when he saw two birds singing happily but the he-bird became lovelorn, desperate, sad when the she-bird died. He recollects this scene invoking joy and sorrow of his childhood. These emotions aroused the myriad feelings, a sort of ‘hell’ within the poet, which were given vent in the form of his poems-which became the immortal ‘Leaves of Grass’. The ‘Sweet hell’ within him with the unknown craving chalked out his destiny - the Destiny to be one of the leading poets of his Nation.

4. The word of the sweetest song and dll 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 to me.

      The poem is a childhood recollection of the poet of a scene which saw on the shores of the sea. He had seen two birds chirping happily. The he-bird became sad with anguish at separation when the she-bird died. The he-bird sent a mournful wail which echoed and re-echoed in the boy’s mind. The waves of the ocean, which formed a sort of cradle rocked by an old crone, whispered the keyword ‘death’, which is inevitable to all that living. The grief of separation lessens when it reconciles to the factor of death-the Unconquerable. The poet shows that death is the clue given by the sea, which gave relief to all miseries. The experience of that childhood recollection went to make him a poet of esteem who dealt with the philosophy of life and death in his poems.

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