One of my favorite poems by Walt Whitman is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”. This poem, like many other creations by Whitman, could be interpreted in a variety of ways. It is a beautiful poem that is also quite difficult.
The poem seems to start off as an adult man remembering a childhood memory. The man is visiting a seashore that he remembers visiting as a boy. In May, when the lilacs were blooming, the man finds two birds (apparently from Alabama?) nesting four green eggs speckled with brown. The female would sit on the eggs while the male would be near, probably collecting food and keeping an eye out for predators. The boy comes back day after day to visit these birds, but does his best to stay far enough away as not to disturb them. The boy thinks he can translate what the birds are saying while they sing. At first their songs are happy, until he notices one day that the female bird is missing. The male bird, noticing his mate is gone, calls out often, attempting to call for her. The bird called for his mate for along while, causing the boy to shed tears.
The voice of the poet proclaimed that he knew what the male bird was saying. That while others who heard his call may think he was just another chirping bird, but that he, the boy, knew what his cries were for. The voice of the poet translates the cries of the bird, of it calling to its mate. However, the boy then wonders if the bird is calling not for his mate, but for him. Hearing the sound of this male bird seemed to awaken something in the boy. He says, “Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there in the night”(Whitman). The boy asks for a clue as to what the meaning of all of it is, and the answer is given to him by the sea. It seems to be saying that love cannot exist without death. That death, while tragic, seems to be beautiful. Upon the sea hissing ‘death’ at him, he somehow comes to the conclusion that his duty in life is to become a solitary poet. Essentially, he thinks that poetry derives from death, or at least his does. Death is the “word of the sweetest song” for a poet, because it seems to be the one thing a poet cannot truly experience (as far as we know).
This poem, like many others of Walt Whitmans, has many themes. Most of this poem centers around love and the trauma of losing it. It seems that death is something that a child must learn in order to gain maturity and produce poetry. This poem shows how the poets memory of loss from his childhood shaped him into becoming the poet he is ‘today’. The cycle of life and death itself seem to be a common discussion in Whitman’s poems. Ironically, the death of the bird lead to the “birth” of the poet. Even the name of the poem is its own symbol of birth (or rebirth).
Another theme in this piece that is not limited to only this poem, is Nature. Whitman does not hide the fact he believes nature is a large part of everyone’s existence. Nature is the scenery for this poem. The image of land and the sea as well as the sun and the moon are symbolic as well. They are ‘opposites’ just like birth and death that exist because of the other.