Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking Analysis

Walt Whitman

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is a poem about memory—about the ways in which an adult poet remembers and understands his childhood, and the ways in which his childhood prepared him for his adult poetic life. Like other British and American Romantic poets, Walt Whitman was interested in this relationship between the formative years of youth and the creative years of adulthood. Thus, Whitman wrote this poem, which is similar to British poet William Wordsworth’s “Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “My Lost Youth.”

The opening stanzas begin with the setting, describing the past, specifically, the past in Long Island (referred to by the Indian name “Paumanok”) and the memory of the “bareheaded, barefoot” child—a popular theme of nineteenth century British and American artists. A musical motif, which continues throughout the poem, is introduced in the image of a bird whose singing enchants the narrator, reminding him of his past.

This memory, enlivened by the notion of song, is emphasized through an italicized stanza in which a pair of birds sings joyous songs, introducing two important ideas: the enlivening quality of music, and the power of the individual aria, which, in fact, is the kind of lyric this poem actually is.

The poem proceeds by announcing the death of the female bird, and the subsequent italicized arias move from a reference to waiting—“I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me”—to despair: “We two together no more.” Despite this “aria sinking,” all else continues, and the boy poet realizes that he will be a poetic bard, a solitary bird, and a solitary singer.

The end of the poem focuses upon this image of the “solitary me”—the solitary poet—hearing the sea sing to him of death. Death, however, is not a terminal point. Instead, death is incorporated into life, just as the “old crone rocking the cradle” suggests that the entrance into life is similarly an introduction to death, which, in turn, prefaces more life. The cycle of life and death, important in all of Whitman’s poems, is thus emphasized in the conclusion of this poem. The elder poet remembers his youth; the old crone rocks the cradle; and the sea whispers to the aging poet of past, present, and future.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is notable for its use of free verse and imagery. Like the King James Version of the Bible, in which free verse is frequently found, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” relies upon the irregular rhythm of phrases, images, and lines rather than the conventional use of meter. Thus, in the first three lines of the poem, the emphasis is not upon feet or syllabic count, as it might be in other, more conventional forms of poetry, but rather upon the rhythm and repetition within the lines themselves:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,Out of the Ninth-month midnight.

Whitman’s use of imagery is similar to his reliance upon free verse in that the technique permeates, subtly yet pervasively, the entire poem. One such image is the rocking cradle, referred to in the title, in the first line, and then in the final lines of the poem, connecting all parts of this lyric by its reference to movement, to change, to the cycles of life.

Another image is that of the singing bird, introduced in the opening lines as “the bird that chanted” to the poet and used throughout the poem, culminating in the final lines, in which the song of the bird, as remembered from the poet’s youth, is both recalled and transformed into the adult...

(The entire section is 458 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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