Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking Summary
by Walt Whitman

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Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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 of the remaining bird.

The boy interprets the song as the bird calling for his absent mate, and now as a man he claims that he, a poet and a “chanter of pains and joys,” understands the meaning of the lonely song better than other men. Lines 71 to 129 are a long, unashamedly sentimental lament by the mockingbird; the natural world seems to be rejoicing in love, but he cannot do so. He convinces himself that every vague shape in the distance must be his mate, and then he persuades himself that he has heard her responding to his song. Finally, however, he realizes that his quest is useless, and he ends sorrowfully.

The boy listens to the aria in ecstasy and in tears because he feels that its meaning has penetrated to his soul. From that moment, he is awakened; he knows his purpose and his destiny, and a thousand songs—poems—begin to stir within him. He, too, will sing of unsatisfied love and explore “the sweet hell within,/ The unknown want.”

Then a new revelation comes as the boy learns to...

(The entire section is 744 words.)