“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.