Posted by: Erin Longbottom | 20th Sep, 2009

Erin for 9/22

So one of the major things that really stuck out to me, as lame is this might be, was the punctuation adjustments going on between these two versions. It seems that in the deathbed edition, Whitman removed a lot of the commas throughout the poems, as well as dashes (which he sometimes replaced with commas or just plain removed). This really bothered me, probably a lot more than it should have. Every time I would notice it I would wonder why Whitman did that, and for the most part I felt like he was “tidying” up the poem. I mean it definitely shifts the rhythm and emphasis of different sections, but I just didn’t really see the point for the most part, other than maybe he looked at it on the page and thought the lines looked too cluttered.

For instance, in A Word Out of the Sea, all the commas gave it this amazing rhythm. I was reading it out loud to myself, and getting really into it (thank goodness my roommate was not around). The rhythm fit really well with the idea of the waves going back and forth and the circular motion he was trying to show through the poem. Then I read Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, and it wasn’t drastically different, but he removed around half, maybe more, of all the commas. Like I said before, it seems like mostly he was just making the poem neater. One of the things I really love about Whitman is the way everything is so stream of consciousness, like he’s incorporating every idea that he’s having at every second into the poem. I love the rawness of his writing. Maybe I am making too much out of it, but I feel like he took that away along with the commas.

Another change I found interesting in this poem was the change in capitalization. In the first version (A Word…) the words sun and death are capitalized, and in Out of the Cradle, they are not. I was really curious why he did this, especially with sun, because it’s harder for me to see the reasoning behind that one. One possible theory I had for that is that when sun was capitalized, (Pour down your warmth, great Sun!) it personifies and addresses the sun,whereas taking away the capitalization, while still addressing the sun, takes away the emphasis from it. Since he didn’t seem to personify much else within the poem, I thought maybe he just changed it because he thought it was too random and didn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the text.

The change in capitalization of the word death was more drastic. This is the original passage:

Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word DEATH;

And again Death—ever Death, Death, Death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird, nor like my
arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me
softly all over,

Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.

In the deathbed edition though, every thing is lowercase. I can see why Whitman would have wanted to change that, mostly because it seemed like in this edition he was trying to make the poem more generalized, and I think maybe he thought there was too much emphasis on “death” when that wasn’t necessarily where he wanted the emphasis (though it was most definitely an important aspect of the poem). When I read the 1867 version though, this section, and up until the end was really powerful to me, aided by the all caps DEATH and then the subsequent capitalizations. Reading the 1891 version removed that powerfulness for me. The first time around I felt like Whitman was shouting at me, the second time just calmly reading to me. Going along with this, I didn’t like the way he added in the second to last line in the 1891 version:

(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)

It completely took me out of the poem in a way that didn’t happen in the 1867 version. I thought maybe he was trying to connect the images of the cradle and then the previously mentioned nagging mother, but it didn’t work for me. I thought the first version was way more powerful. It just really makes me wonder what he was thinking while making all of these revisions.


Erin, perhaps I am still stuck in my bout with Emily Dickinson last semester, but I, too, was interested in the striking differences in the ways Whitman punctuates these two versions. And, I certainly don’t think that you are thinking about it more than you should be.

Another thing I noticed about the discrepancies in the punctuation (to go along with your point that the later text seems almost less emphatic) is that Whitman removes most of his exclamation points throughout the deathbed edition. I don’t really know what to do with any of this, but it bothered me as well. When you were talking about the endings of “A Word Out of the Sea” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” though, I started to think more on these differences and started to wonder if maybe the emphasis on death became a scarier topic for Whitman as time progressed. As a young man, it may have been easy for him to look death in the face and laugh and shout (symbolized by caps and exclamation points) because it was not something so near. As time went on and Whitman drew closer to the end of his life, however, death became quieter and more serene in his work. This could be an attempt at comforting himself, which would also explain the insertion of the “old crone rocking the cradle” in the deathbed edition.

This was totally the poem that I spazzed about. I, too, noticed the way it sort of rocked (but I didn’t want to mention it, especially the way my dad has been giving me looks all weekend). One thing I also found kind of interesting (and perhaps this was me going a little overboard) was that the number of times he mentions “death” varies in that stanza. I think it’s like 5 times versus 6. I wonder why he would have done something like that?

The punctuation was the major thing that struck out to me too. Whitman was either following up on his grammar rules, or he wanted to change the whole tone of his poems. I thought it was a good idea that you read them out loud, I did too and it helps me to figure out just why Whitman made these changes. Although we can not know for sure, it gives purpose to the changes he made. Also, I agree with your idea of the sun being personified with the capital letter, in “A Word Out of the Sea”.

Great post, Erin! Lord, I do love punctuation, and I’m not ashamed to say it. This is such strong careful reading of the rhythms of Whitman’s versions of the poems. I also like the point about capitalizing Sun and Death– to me, maybe more than PERSONifying them, it sort of deifies them, makes them strong god-like or supernatural forces rather than parts of nature or astronomical/ biological facts. I can see why Death would seem like that to him in the war years as compared to later in his mellow Camden years, but it’s interesting that Sun also loses the superpowers.

I both love and agree with your little bit about how the rhythm of “A Word Out of the Sea” mimics the motion of the waves. To me, this is the mark of a great poet– to write something that both contains symbolism and serves as a symbol itself. Punctuation, although seemingly trivial, is crucial to rhythm and rhythm, as you have noted, can add a whole other of meaning and “presence” to a poem.

Secondly, I wanted to note that I also noticed the lack of exclamation marks in the later versions of Whitman’s work. Along that same vein, there’s significantly less “O!” statements. Reading the 1855 Whitman, these “O’s” almost become trademark of his, I would find myself grinning whenever I came across one after another. Personally, I miss the “O’s” and I miss the zest of 1855.

I felt the same way about the 1867 version. Whitman seemed to lose a lot of his meandering, care-free attitude that was in the 1855 version. He did seem to refine his poetry a lot, which made it not quite as visceral as it originally felt. I miss it, which is a little funny since I was bothered by it when I first started reading Song of Myself.

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