ALT Whitman's most beautiful, most perfectly formed poem, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," presents us with an essential question about his ever-perplexing life and career: why should Whitman, already famous, indeed notorious, for casting off the formal patterns that so long had shaped the music of English poetry—^why should he now devise his own new patterns of rhythmic form? In his earliest poems Whitman had adopted the traditional forms that specify the number and position of strong and weak syllables per line and that also often employ rhyme. As it either fulfills or thwarts our expectations, this pattern of strong versus weak syllables (also usually implying long versus short) shapes an underlying rhythm, the basic current of music then thought essential to lift poems to a higher aesthetic and/or moral level. Sidney Lanier and others correctly identified this as a triple rhythm (3/8 or 3/4), though Lanier himself imposed, or at least implied, uniform time values more appropriate to actual music than to language in which such matters are always ñexible and individual. Whitman touched off his revolt against these conformities in the poem now known as "Song of Myself—a poem declaring itself to be a new Bible or guidebook for the beliefs and values of the loving all-inclusive society he imagined America might become. These beliefs provoke much of the dazzling imagery and symbolism that electrify this amazing poem. The self it celebrates must explore and expand, passing outward to identify with all existence—an inclusiveness displayed in the poem's language, form, and subject matter, and shown in verse styles ranging from fiat arrhythmic prose all the way to those traditional forms he was supposedly overthrowing. This inclusiveness overrode his deepest doubts and fears: that he was alone, cut off from the lives of others—from the mother, from the lover, from his society's intentions and expectations. As most critics note, however, with age and experience Whitman's private sensualities, desires, and joys lost much of their sur© 2008 by W. D. Snodgrass


Unfortunately this idiom allowed him to relapse at times into old-fashioned "poetical" language. greeds. Even worse his private journals reveal that the "manly love of comrades" he had so strongly championed had proven. During years of revision and experiment. at times. His style was less influenced by homiletic writers such as Martin Tupper in favor ofthe more musical efforts of such poets as Tennyson. Though this forgoes the subtler syncopations and vitally flexible rhythmic complications many poets had developed in the classical prosody. influenced by folk songs and ballads. nursery songs and poems: Three blind mice. . much ofthe transformative power of his beliefs had been replaced by an interest in the transcendent power of music. Meantime the world around him had also changed. or developed into. growing ominously farther from his ideals and hopes—rushing into Civil War with its hatreds. Whitman's later masterpiece. both poetic and personal (he had once considered becoming an itinerant lecturer and preacher). its homophobia spreading. SNODGRASS 399 prise and shock. see how they run. "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Many such folk songs and poems have either derived from. lighter syllables fit in as they may. During the mid and the late nineteenth century. These stresses. many English poets. and prejudices multiplying. three blind mice. earlier the great dilemma—both for his doctrines and for the structure of "Song of Myself—now becomes the one solution that can rejoin him to the great Mother. the Sea. had turned from the strict syllable count of classical prosody toward stress verse in which only accented syllables are counted. yet his deepening discovery of internal and personal rhythms finally led him to musics that charged his poems with emotional enrichments unavailable to others or to himself while he depended on traditional verse forms or on conscious visionary structures of belief. Death. See how they run. of course. D. it does offer simple and more obvious rhythms. offering fewer and less startling transformations of language." deals directly with his fears of isolation and abandonment that his beliefs had veiled and reveals a self emptied of meaning by the loss of love. more of a torment than a solution.w. fall more or less equally in time as the main rhythmic accents.

Many children's rhymes—"Ding. The last Une repeats the first with one extra light syllable. / Pussy's in the well. each half-line has an additional light syllable.400 THE RHYTHM THAT ROCKS WALT'S CRADLE They all ran after the farmer's wife Who cut off their heads with a carving knife. well for the sailor lad That he sings in his boat on the bay! And the stately ships go on To their haven under the hifl. . —"Break." and "Hot Cross Buns"—take such a form. O Sea! But the tender grace of a day that is dead Will never come back to me. On thy cold gray stones. . But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand And the sound of voice that is stiU. break. At the foot of thy crags. O Sea! And I would that my tongue might utter The thoughts that arise in me . dong. Break" This poem. Lines 3. Break. Did ever you see such a sight in your life As three blind mice? The first two half-lines have three heavy monosyllables apiece. break. 4. break. was deeply admired by Whitman and at times was echoed . like "Out ofthe Cradle." an oceanside lament for a lost love. and 5 grow to four stresses. Break. O. well for the fisherman's boy That he shouts with his sister at play! O. It's a bit more surprising to hear Tennyson begin a lyric of grief with three identical single syUables: Break. break. bell." "Pease Porridge Hot. matching the melody's accents. in the second line. then a pause to match a rest in the melody. with several light syllables scattered between.

In 1861 he produced a direct imitation in one of his earliest Civil War poems. the three-beat motif is repeated. and scatter the congregation. Nor the peace-ful farm-er an-y peace . So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.w. SNODGRASS 401 in his own work. D. then a version showing stressed syllables and the second half-lines dropped onto separate Unes. ploughing his field or gathering his grain." To visualize this technique. and scat-ter the con-gre-ga-tion. Into the school where the schol-ar is stud-y-ing Leave not the bride-groom qui-et— no hap-pi-ness must he have now with his bride. producing half-lines (as in the nursery rhyme above). Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow! Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force Into the solemn church. a device Whitman had already tried in "Song of the Broad Axe. however. Nor the peaceful farmer any peace. "Beat! Beat! Drums!" There. the poem's opening stanza as usually printed. first. BEAT! BEAT! DRUMS! Beat! beat! drums! blow! bug-les! blow! Through the wind-ows—through doors— burst like a ruth-less force In-to the sol-emn church. I will give. Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride. Into the school where the scholar is studying.

in a splendid short poem. Thereafter half-lines will alternate between three and four stresses: 3 plus 4. again 3 plus 4. for instance. The motif. then. The effect is much like the theme-with-variations heard in music. Drum-Taps. identifying the cavalry as friendly and so dramatically rede- . then backs off again for a symbolic representation of the original serpentine image. Whitman takes a daring step further. having some element of completed meaning. Later in his Civil War book. significant grouping of words like those we often form in normal speech. will have either two or three such chunks or segments. This first appears in Whitman's later work DrumTaps. slightly varied in the second. each rhythmically related to the first segment. Break. This may consist of a short sentence or of a complete or partial phrase which. The basic building block here is a compact." notable for its brilliant camera work. Break") but has no second half. Line 4 grows to four full stress-units (as happened in both "Three Blind Mice" and "Break. then ebb back at the end—a tendency seen." The poetic line. Such groupings have been described as "packets of thought" that the brain assembles and delivers as units of speech—neurologists refer to this process as "chunking. their theme or motif. announced in the first half-line.402 THE RHYTHM THAT ROCKS WALT'S CRADLE plough-ing his field or gath-er-ing his grain. but finally ending 4 plus 3—reñecting not only the added fourth stress in the last stanzas of Tennyson's lyric but also Whitman's tendency to expand a poem toward its climax. So fierce you whirr and pound you drums— so shrill you bug-les blow. is then continued in half-lines of stressed verse with light syllables scattered at will. in "Tears. building lines not from predefined small units such as syllabic-stress feet or the measures of stress verse that disregard word-formation or other sense-units. is usually preceded and followed by a slight pause. it zooms in for individual close-ups. Starting from a long-distance landscape shot." also closely related to Tennyson's work. "Cavalry Crossing a Ford.

SNODGRASS 403 fining the readers emotional response. oth-ers are just ent-er-ing the ford— while. Again I will present this first as usually printed. the neg-li-gent rest on the sad-dies. / / / They take a serp-en-tine course. Behold the brown-faced men. / / / where they wind be-twixt green is-lands. their arms flash in the sun— hark to the mus-i-cal clank. each group. in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink. their arms flash in the sun—hark to the musical clank. They take a serpentine course. in "Cavalry Crossing a Ford": A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands. each group. each person a picture. Behold the silvery river. Be-hold the sil-ver-y riv-er. D. m it the splash-mg hors-es loit-er-ing stop to drink. Some emerge on the opposite bank. each per-son a pic-ture. The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind. Be-hold the brown-faced men. / / / / Some e-merge on the op-pos-ite bank. then make visual the rhythmical effect. A line in long ar-ray .w. the negligent rest on the saddles. others are just entering the ford—^while Scarlet and blue and snowy white.

The next poem in Drum-Taps. The num-er-ous camp-fires scat-ter d near and tar. with barns and the or-chards of sum-mer. of course. loom-ing." This cradle is. "Bivouac on a Mountain Side. large-sized. The guid-on flags flut-ter gay-ly in the wind. Brok-en. with cling-ing ce-dars. an auditory symbol evok- . I present here only my visualized schema of the poem's rhythmic structure. the sea. is also based on this three-beat rhythm that again expands quickly to an occasional four. with tall shapes ding-ily seen. far out of reach. flick-er-ing. stud-ded. which had once rocked all life and is introduced and developed here in a thematic rhythm. ab-rupt. a trav-el-ing arm-y halt-ing. / / / some away up on the moun-tain. the ter-raced sides of a moun-tain." equally brilliant. however. with rocks. in plac-es ris-ing high. break-ing out. Whitmans most vital use of such variations. The shad-ow-y forms of men and horses. And o-ver all the sky—the sky! far. I see be-fore me now. Be-low a fer-tile val-ley spread. Be-hind.404 THE RHYTHM THAT ROCKS WALT'S CRADLE Scar-let and blue and snow-y white. lies in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. the e-tem-ai stars.

A man. if a line contains more than one variant. rising. Throwing myself on the sand. As a flock. bareheaded. From such as now they start the scene revisiting. hurriedly. Out of the Ninth-month midnight. From the memories of the bird that chanted to me. Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond. Borne hither. From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist. I will separate them with a space: Out of the cradle endlessly rocking. Then. I.or threebeat phrases. the musical shuttle. uniterofhere and hereafter. appearing throughout the first seven lines in either two. From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease. Out of the mocking-bird's throat. Out from the patches of briers and blackberries. I will show these thematic variants in italics. ere aU eludes me. from the fitful risings and fallings I heard. the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive. D.w. Up from. From the myriad thence-arous'd words. or overhead passing. twittering. From the word stronger and more delicious than any. From your memories sad brother. From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears. SNODGRASS 405 ing the ocean s movement. confronting the waves. Down from the shower'd halo. . yet by these tears a little boy again. barefoot. after twelve lines of free verse which hint only faintly at that theme. the ocean s rhythm reappears as the narrator recalls himself as a boy throwing himself on the shore. chanter of pains and joys. where the chfld leaving his bed wandered alone. The first line states this motif twice in short two-beat phrases which by the third line grow to three beats.

apart from the main action and from the significance of this wealth of details. "Break. is suppressed until the very last word. prosey free verse—not unlike operatic recitatives that present the action which is most frequently responded to and interpreted in the arias. Here the model is Tennyson's elegy with its three monosyllables." with the first section as its overture that introduces the scene and actors. This is accomplished by means of an eccentric syntax: this section consists of a single sentence whose subject.406 THE RHYTHM THAT ROCKS WALT'S CRADLE Taking all hints to use them. Shine! shine! shine! Pour down your warmth. great sun! While we bask. this narration is handled in Whitman's normal. linguistic. and ideational—but without directly involving us in the narrative. This overture completed. break": this aria's first stanza begins similarly. which was then becoming popular in New York. . I. we are suspended. then of desolation at her loss—does Whitman return to an even more pronounced music. "Once Paumonok. Robert Faner aptly calls this poem "a miniature opera. while the main verb. appears only in the 21st of its 23 lines. or other variants. weaving together the themes—musical. break. we begin the narrative action. but swiftly leasing Many critics have noted Whitmans passionate love of Italian opera. Since normal sentence structure with its sense of subordinations and of directed attention is withheld. three stress measures. A reminiscence sing. we two together." with its flashback to the beach where the boy had watched the paired mockingbirds. beyond them. This establishes a reader's anticipation of lines of three segments— whether of three syllables. a second and quite different form of theme-with-variations. Dropping the rhythmic motifs noted in the first section. sing. Only when he recalls and "translates" the actual mockingbird's song—first an aria of joy at being with his mate. followed in its second and third lines by three measures each of stress verse.

of course. Occasionally lines may have as few as four or as many as twenty-three syllables. O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers? What is that little black thing I see there in the white? The basic movement. I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me. segments within a line may vary in length. but then regain a basic motif is much like the mockingbird's habit of asserting a basic call or melody that can then be extended. in a burst of excitement or passion. only to return ." Fairly often. I must be still. and such lines may. soothe. elaborated." At all points." although elsewhere lines and stanzas may vary in length—five-beat lines (and even iambic pentameter) not being uncommon: Blow! blow! blow! Blow up sea-winds along Paumonoks shore. then abandon. SNODGRASS 407 Furthermore separate stanzas within the major sections begin (and more often end) with three stress measures. strengthening the impression of the tripartite line as the basis from which variants devolve. forgo all sense of rhythmical movement. be still to listen. breaking into two half-lines of three measures each: "Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want. Major sections of the song will often begin with three-syllable lines such as "Soothe. becoming the "chunks" or "packets of thought and speech" noted in the Drum-Taps poems: "So faint. lines may have six stresses.w. in the very next Une. my love This freedom to assert. D. or even interrupted by other musical (and nonmusical) sounds. Loud! loud! loud! Loud I call to you. Especially as the songs climax nears. though. soothe. just as the introductory overture does in its midsection. will soon reappear—in this case. the poem is free to break from this rhythmic basis. sometimes beyond single syllables or stress measures.

O past! O happy life! O songs of joy! In the air. She echoes the five earlier cries." In place of any reunion with the lost beloved. "Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!" offering instead five opposing syllables: "Death. the word up from the waves. this voice echoes not only the repeated syllable. loved. I will again show the stressed syllables. with the simultaneously despairing and comforting syllable. nearly a page later and in the utterly different voice of the great Mother. whispering her answer to the poet's grief. enclosing a rhythm that we. had nearly forgotten. The return of this rhythm is not only underscored by internal rhymes and heavy alHterations but emphasized. uselessly all the night. Here. over fields. I might agree—if this were the poem s climax. death.408 THE RHYTHM THAT ROCKS WALT'S CRADLE again and again to that initial theme. the Sea. And. death. Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved! But my mate no more. no more with me! Many critics think this climax too self-displaying a wail of despair. death. My own songs a-waked from that hour. Whitman is following the operatic arias tendency to link phrases or to interrupt the flow of song with extensions or repetition of phrases to emphasize the text or to display improvisations or coloratura. And with them the key. but also recalls that oceanic rhythm we heard in the poems opening stanza and overture. moreover. she promises rejoinder with the maternal force from which the speaker was separated at birth. the birds aria rises to an overwhelming climax of grief and loss: O throat! O throbbing heart! And I singing uselessly. by the poem's only parenthesis. paradoxically. . It seems instead to represent the sort of emotional baggage that must be worked through and discharged before the poem can reach the true climax. in one of the most magical moments to be found in any poem. death. death. Through these devices. like the narrator. in the woods.

The poem's original first line. (Or like some old crone 1 . he had wandered into certain lines and phrases whose repeated or variant rhythms suggested an underlying pattern. I would strongly urge the reader that the poem should be—as Whitman clearly intended—spoken aloud. in 1881. creep-ing rock-ing the crad-le. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" Both. would probably borrow or even invent a theme. Whitman did just the opposite. in 1860. it came into print only in 1871. That Une remained in the 1867 edition. The resurgence ofthat seminal rhythm in the poem's coda came only ten years later. 1 / and all songs which." a phrase with httle musical impulse and no relation to the poem's later movement. Whitman has shown that the same may be true of the poem's rhythmic and . then set about fiddUng up some variations on it. were talking about the poem's conscious meaning. "It is no poem at all. was "Out of the rock'd cradle. then had ransacked those phrases to find the dormant motif—the poem's present title and first line. bend-mg a-side. To experience fully how these motifs bind and shape the whole work into one musical body. That motif first appears in a handwritten but rejected variant for that same edition. eleven years after the first edition. and but a fake poem. more or less unintentionally. 1 .) swathed in sweet gar-ments. however. still unrecognized theme. SNODGRASS 409 The word of the sweet-est song That strong and de-lic-ious word to my feet. I suspect that most of us." Or Auden's. It took Whitman some twenty-one years to develop and achieve this technique. though the Unes following have several suggestions of the still unstated. D. The sea whis-pered me. I am reminded of Robert Frost's dictum.w. His many published revisions demonstrate that. the next-to-last edition. if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. Whitman's process in composing this poem is of considerable relevance here. if asked to compose a theme with variations. its dictionary sense.

how few artists have so fully accomplished that! If this analysis demonstrates. I can only suggest that the poem commemorates a sense of loss so encompassing as never to leave Whitman completely. . it may also raise a more resistant question: why does this technique never prominently reappear in his later work. We all claim that creative work should be a process of self-discovery. could not be permitted to drive him again to explore so extensively his own musical and emotional depths. even if surmounted. in place of the appetite for experience and the positive. how Whitman discovered his own rhythmic theme-and-variations prosody.410 THE RHYTHM THAT ROCKS WALT'S CRADLE musical embodiment. yet which. not even in such gdefridden poems as "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" or "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life"? "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" obviously delves into areas of personal loss and rejection of this life's necessary emotional damage. at least in part. Yet no biographer has identified with certainty any event that would account for a desolation so profound. confident tone so typical of most of his work.

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