Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is a poem of reminiscence, in which the poet, at a crisis in his adult life, looks back to an incident in his childhood when he first became aware of his vocation as a poet. The structure of the poem owes a great deal to music, particularly grand opera, which Whitman loved. He once said that without opera he could not have written Leaves of Grass, and an anonymous review in the Saturday Press in 1860 (which was actually written by Whitman himself) commented, “Walt Whitman’s method in the construction of his songs is strictly the method of Italian opera.”
The musical quality of the poem can be seen in the opening section of twenty-two lines, with its incantatory rhythms and wavelike quality, the latter suggesting the restless motion of a turbulent sea. This is most notable in the buildup of pressure in lines 8 to 15, each of which begins with the word “from”; the effect is like the inexorable rising of a powerful wave before it crests, breaks, and laps quietly onto the shore in the final half-line (“A reminiscence sing”). The meaning of the opening section is simple: Under moonlight on an autumn evening, the poet, caught in a moment of personal despair, has returned to a place on the seashore that he had known as a young boy. The scene reminds him of a moment of great significance in his life.
The next nine lines are the equivalent of the recitative (or narrative portion) in opera. The poet recalls that as a boy he spent many days one spring on Paumanok (the Indian name for Long Island), closely observing the nest of two mockingbirds. Recitative now alternates with the arias of the mockingbirds, who at first sing of their togetherness. One day the she-bird disappears, and all summer long the boy listens to the solitary song...
(The entire section is 744 words.)
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