Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking Questions and Answers
by Walt Whitman

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Please write an in-depth summary of Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking by Walt Whitman. This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please note that this material is intended to supplement the information presented in our eNotes study guide.

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Whitman's poem is nominally about a summer Whitman spent as a boy observing a mockingbird that had lost its mate. It's true subject, however, is translation—specifically, how the song of the Mockingbird, or the murmur of the sea, can be translated into human language—and Whitman's discovery of his vocation as poet. In that sense, the true subject matter of the poem is poetry itself.

Plot Summary

The action of the poem can be summarized quickly: Whitman reminisces about a time in his youth when he found a pair of mockingbirds nesting close to the shore. One day, the female bird disappears, never to return. The male bird sings a long song of grief, lamenting her absence; this song merges with the song of the waves, which ceaselessly murmur the word "death." Whitman understands the bird's song and is moved by his devotion to his lost mate and by the echoing sadness of the ocean. This awakens within him his own "songs," and he realizes his vocation as poet.

If the poet's role is to translate the songs of nature, this translation takes several forms in the poem, not the least of which (as it is its often noted) is a formal resemblance to opera. The mockingbird's lament for its lost mate is explicitly referred to in the poem as an "aria," which provides a clue to Whitman's poetic practice. This identification not only provides a kind of structure for the poem but suggests a kind of harmony of parts (the bird's song, the waves' murmur, the boy's emotions, etc.) that Whitman, through his poetry, is able to capture.

While it is possible to understand this "translation" as a kind of anthropomorphism—in which Whitman is literally putting words into the mockingbird's mouth—such an argument misses Whitman's key point, which is that this experience is important because it revealed to the young Whitman the essential unity of all things, including (especially) life and death. The "thousand songs" that the mockingbird awakens in him are each individual examples, or evidences, of this unity.

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