“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:
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.