Walt Whittman Essay, Research Paper
May 9, 2000
Walt Whitman: An American Poet
The ability to pinpoint the birth or beginning of the poet lifestyle is rare. It is rare for the observer as it is for the writer. The Walt Whitman poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking is looked at by most as just that. It is a documentation, of sorts, of his own paradigm shift. The realities of the world have therein matured his conceptual frameworks. In line 147 we read “Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake” (Baym 1041). This awakening is at the same time a death. The naivet? of the speaker (I will assume Whitman) is destroyed. Through his summer long observation, the truths of life are born, or at least reinforced, in him. The obvious elements are birth and death, which are both caused by another instance of the latter (death of the “she-bird”). Nature’s role is ever-present. Not only in the sense of it giving a constant livable environment, but also almost deified in the personification of its will and actions. The birth of vision in the speaker is due not only to the observation of death, as that is just a single occurrence, but to the observation of the role of nature in all of its mysterious cycles.
Nature is not the sole source of dramatic symbolism in the piece. The actions of the characters themselves reflect the piece’s definite goals. Though these “characters” set the scene and take center stage at different points, it must be remembered that what occurs is removed from the reader by two filters. The first is the filter of interpretation by the boy who is witnessing the events, it is then filtered through the memory of the boy become both man and poet. The boy has
thus created a profound story of want and injustice through translation of natural occurrence (sounds and sea), and the man-poet has created a path though which all could trace the progression of these messages into the poet’s insight (”Poems” 8). Due to this fact, the central character in this piece is the boy, foreshadowing what he is to become. Attention is not focused on the birds and sea themselves, but on the boy-man’s growing understanding brought on by them. They are then factors in the equation of nature and speaker.
The seemingly autobiographical nature of this piece instantly calls for observation. The speaker is an older Whitman, advanced and experienced. The poem is a remembrance of his childhood from afar. This gives Whitman the opportunity to distance himself from the time period and make further matured observation. As said before, the experience written from here is a major cause of his personal assent. The structure of time changes throughout the piece, but is consistent. The first stanza of the poem is mostly in the present tense as the advanced Whitman is summarizing the events before he tells of them. On line seven (still the first stanza) Whitman begins to go deeper into summarized explanation with a change to past tense. Here he tells, quite literally, of the two birds’ effect on him as recognized by an older man, but originally seen through a child’s eye. He speaks of the power it held over his senses and how it forces the coming flashback.
“From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and falling I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease, Palomo3
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,”
His words come by list in force. He speaks of the emotions brought on by the bird’s song and the environmental setting of his piece. He then makes mention of all the words forced upon him upon his epiphany. The word “stronger and more delicious than any” is the word death. This is found in line 168, but eluded to in the introduction. On the shore near the childhood home of Whitman, the scene is set in May when he as a boy, finds a nest of birds, male and female and their eggs. In his observations he translates the actions of the birds through personification. The birds’ thoughts are his own interpretation. He witnesses what he believes to be true love between the two.
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together” (Baym 1039).
There seems to be a perfection to the state which these two share. No matter what the world brings their love exists as it always had. The next stanza begins with “Till of a sudden, May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate, One forenoon the she-bird crouched not on the nest, Nor returned that afternoon, nor the next Nor ever appeared again”(Baym 1039). The recently impossible is now the reality. The love perceived by Whitman still exists, but not as a functioning unit. From this point on the he-bird longs for the lost love of his mate. Palomo4 The voice of the he-bird calls for nature to return his love to him by any means necessary. “Blow! Blow! Blow! Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok’s shore; I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me”(Baym 1039). This is the extent to which the he-bird carries on the love for the she-bird, with a constant longing song. Whitman recognizes this and begins the process of slowly coming to learn the truths of the world. “Land! Land! O land! Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again if you only would”(Baym 1039). Whitman also realizes the torment felt by the he-bird as he is confused by the world without his love. “Yes my brother I know, The rest might not, but I have treasured every note”(Baym 1039)
The he-bird is further tormented by his loss, to add to his dismay he feels the physical forms of nature are pitted against him. The landscape becomes hostile. This example of nature’s embodiment is the third element to the “trio” (Line 140). The first is the speaker, who is broken into two categories the matured and the na?ve boy. The second element are the “two feather’d guests from Alabama”. In each of the first two elements we find a duel role. The third however possesses more layers as it encompasses all. References to its power span land, sea, air, and even the creatures themselves.
The symbolism of elements in this piece falls into two categories. We see the polar opposites; night and day, sun and moon, land and sea, life and death, and love and loss (”Walt Whitman” 590). In the first we see land, love and life as connected themes. In the second we find sea, loss, and death. At the poem’s beginning we are exposed to color and vivid description, which is the first category.
“When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing”(line 24),
“four light-green eggs spotted with brown”(line 27),
“Pour down your warmth, great sun!”(line33). Palomo5
From this introduction to the love of the birds we get a feeling of strength and beauty which is later traded, in the latter parts of the poem, for a bleaker description of the environment.
“With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning,
On the sands of Paumanok’s shore gray and rustling,
The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, the face of the sea
almost touching…”(Baym 1041).
This latter description is that of a lonesome love deprived of its object with seemingly only the world to blame. “One set of these symbols is associated with physical love, the body, and life; the other with spiritual love, the soul, and death. Out of these associations comes the suggestion that life and death too, like day and night, are merely a part of the rhythmical evolution of the universe.” Whitman takes the parts, separates them, then combines them as a whole. This is, again, nature (in the eyes of Whitman) being both the beginning and end of the self-progression. Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul)
“Is it indeed towards your mate you sing? Or is it really to me?…
O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me,
O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you…
The messenger there arous’d , the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me” (Baym 1041).
The he-bird’s song is Whitman’s catalyst. The boy’s soul senses a change (the advanced Whitman) and ponders over the bird/nature’s intent. He asks the bird whom he sings for, but the question only returns to himself. Whitman is the translator therefore the question is his to answer. The entire ordeal has as of this point changed the speaker. The bird speaks Whitman’s knowing soul without flaw. The bird has both given a death and a birth to the speaker (”Walt Whitman” 31490). Palomo6
“The word final, superior to all…
Are you whispering it, and have you been all the time, you sea-waves?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?” (Baym 1042).
Upon asking for more of an explanation to his intangible feelings the speaker points toward the sea. His line of questioning the same as with the bird; is this for me? He finds the answer to lay at the meeting point of sea and land.
“Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death…”(Baym 1042)
Along with the day the speaker receives his answer from the blending of the physical and spiritual realms of nature, the answer is death. Death to what he had entered with. Death to his childhood. The repetition of the beating waves is onomatopoeic. Each wave is an answer to his question and to his purpose. The “hissing melodious”, which seems a oxymoron, is a further extension. Hissing, thought of as a constant noise with out melody, is here made to ring with pleasant truthful melody. The beauty is in truth and understanding. Whitman knows of the truth and the vision now born within him. “Neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart”.
“Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang at me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from the hour, Palomo7
And with them the key, the word up from the waves…”(Baym 1042).
On a closing note, the bird is a demon in that he has forced the speaker to change, and any drastic life shaking change results in feelings of uncertainty and discomfort, we must also note the term “brother” is applied. The end results of this fusion are, in fact, the newborn or newfound spirit. His learning is complete; whether it was noticed initially or after further maturing isn’t evident. What is evident is the fact that through the speaker’s observation of the combined elements of time (maturing) and space (the surroundings) he transcends all dimensional plains to truly understand nature. The Sea against the shore is the “cradle endlessly rocking”, also the death of innocence. Him realizing the birth of poet is his assent past this truth (”From”). Life and death are not the bookends to our existence, but points in an endless cycle. To this death there is a birth, the birth of spirit.
Baym, Nina, et.al. Out Of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking. New York. W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.
“Walt Whitman’s Poems.” London Sun 17 April 1868, p.31490.
“Poems by Walt Whitman.” Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper 19 April 1868, p.8.
“Walt Whitman’s Poems” Sunday Review 25, 2 May 1868, p. 589-590.