Sunday, September 20th, 2009 | Author:

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is perhaps one of my newest favorite Whitman poems. The theme of death is rampant in it, and at times, the imagery of the lost mates made me ache. But, despite all the loss, there is hope within the text; to quote a great movie and even greater king, we have this thing called the circle of life. Whitman and Mufasa seem pretty on par with this theme: with loss, there is always a new beginning. Like so many of the poems that we read before, this “Out of the Cradle” seems made for the Civil War. The country had a death; it lost half itself and its “mate.” But with that, there is the chance for regrowth and renewal. This poem originally appeared in 1860, and by then, the destruction of the nation was already upon us.

The 1860 text is here, if you wish to compare it to the 1867 and 1881 editions that we read. I sat up all night going back and forth between the three. Stanzas like this were particularly interesting:

Two together!

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.

This stanza is taken from the 1860 and 1881 versions. In the 1867 version, however, the last line goes like this: “If we two keep together.” The certainty that “while” possesses is taken from the text. “While” implies that the singing and playing is already going on. However, the instance of “if” makes the stanza a plea instead of a  statement. Whitman, having worked in the hospitals, has seen the chaos and pain of a fractured America, and the dream of his joined country shattered. It’s as if he presenting his earlier promise again, showing the grandeur that America could be. He speaks of uniting both the  black and the white, the north and the south. It’s interesting that he speaks in these strictly binary terms here as well. I’m normally used to his meandering lists, naming North and South and Southeast and Midwest, not just the opposition. Here, Whitman displays our lost mates, mirroring the binary oppositions in the war.

There is also a section in the 1860 and 1867 editions of this poem (Whitman 8:32) that is completely taken out of the 1872 edition. This stanza also shows me a Whitman touched by a fractured nation. There are lines such as “O what is my destination! (I fear it is chaos..” Whitman can’t see whether fortune “smiles” or “frowns” on America. I wonder if he was watching with a sort of baited breath. The prophet doesn’t seem so clairvoyant anymore. By 1881, Whitman is triumphant; he jumps straight to the line about conquering death. This is more like my 1855 Whitman, devil may care and ready to take on America’s metaphysical salvation. There is no doubt about the nation anymore. America has healed, has been reborn, and has begun greatness again.

Finally, there’s a line I can’t really account for. In the 1881 edition, Whitman compares the whisper of the sea to “some old crone rocking the cradle” (394). The other two simply…end.  Perhaps Whitman felt that the others were incomplete, or perhaps it better accounts for some sort of God, rocking the cradle of life. But I’m not really so sure Whitman needed that explanation. I’ll keep thinking about it, and let you know later, perhaps. Until next week, Whitmaniacs.

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  1. It is remarkable how big a difference it makes when you change “while” to “if,” isn’t it? Nice observation.

    I was also going over these different versions & noticed the same thing about the ending. As a reader, I like the open-endedness of the 1867 version; it feels in the deathbed edition like he’s trying to wrap everything too neatly together, perhaps to bring back that cradle image from the beginning of the poem.

  2. Meghan, first of all, a post that begins with Whitman, Mufasa, and the circle of life can never be bad 😉

    But, in all seriousness, it is really interesting that Whitman changes so many seemingly little things between versions that have SUCH an impact on the reader and on the texts themselves. It is the mark of a careful reader that catches the change from “while” to “if” and back again, so bravo for pointing that out. Slight nuances like these continue to occur throughout many of his poems in the deathbed edition (in comparison to 1867). It seems that these changes in word choice, as you say, mark the changing of the world around him. How clever of Whitman to do this! I don’t know that I have ever known another poet to stick so firmly to a collection so as to even alter small words or phrases in order to help the text remain applicable to the present as well as the past. This allows Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to become, as he always desired it to, an authoritative and compelling text for society at all times (see my response to Sam K.’s post for more on this).

  3. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    Meghan, I have to thank you for drawing my attention closer to what I might have (yes, I know I’m a phillistine) written off mentally as “another long poem I need to go through.” I think this is a beautiful coming of age poem. We cannot dwell simply on what has been lost: we cannot remain trapped in the past like the demon-bird (that term appeals to the Conan side of me). Instead, we “fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother, / That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach, / With the thousand responsive songs as random…”

  4. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    You are a philistine, indeed, Conan, if you’re going to start ripping on long poems. Watch out.

    Meghan, it’s really impressed me how you’re making such a rich use of the archive in this very insightful comparison of poems. Oh, if only you had linked in youtube footage of the movie! I hadn’t thought this clearly either about the actual work of binary (shivers) vs. the excessive, elaborate listing of options. It reduces everything in a way that seems wholly un-Whitmanic, and it seems like just the kind of oversimplification inherent in the ideologies and politics and conflict of his time that our man should be undermining or loudly protesting or resisting. And yet here he is using it. Hmmmm….. more to think through on that, no doubt.

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