Articles for Teachers & Students

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

by Edward Hirsch

The poem would address an unseen listener, an unseen audience. It does so through the rhetoric of address since the message in the bottle seems to be speaking to the poet alone, or to a muse, a friend, a lover, an abstraction, an object in nature. . . . It seems to be speaking to God or to no one. Rhetoric comes into play here, the radical of presentation, the rhythm of words creating a deep sensation in the reader. Rhythm would lift the poem off the page, it would bewitch the sounds of language, hypnotize the words into memorable phrases. Rhythm creates a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and difference. It is related to the pulse, the heartbeat, the way we breathe. It takes us into ourselves; it takes us out of ourselves. It differentiates us; it unites us to the cosmos.

Rhythm is a form cut into time, as Ezra Pound said in ABC of Reading. It is the combination in English of stressed and unstressed syllables that creates a feeling of fixity and flux, of surprise and inevitability. Rhythm is all about recurrence and change. It is poetry’s way of charging the depths, hitting the fathomless. It is oceanic. I would say with Robert Graves that there is a rhythm of emotions that conditions the musical rhythms, that mental bracing and relaxing which comes to us through our sensuous impressions. It is the emotion—the very rhythm of the emotion—that determines the texture of the sounds.

I like to feel the sea drift, the liturgical cadence of the first stanza of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” It is one sentence and twenty-two lines long. It always carries me away.

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

The incantatory power of this is tremendous as the repetitions loosen the intellect for reverie. It seems to me that Whitman creates here the very rhythm of a singular reminiscence emerging out of the depths of mind, out of the sea waves and the rocking cradle, out of all the undifferentiated sensations of infancy, out of the myriad memories of childhood, out of all possible experiences the formative event of a boy leaving the safety of his bed and walking the seashore alone, moving “Out,” “Over,” “Down,” “Up,” “From,” exchanging the safety of the indoors for the peril of the outdoors, facing his own vague yearnings and the misty void, mixing his own tears and the salt spray of the ocean, listening to the birds, understanding the language—the calling—of one bird. He walks the shore on the edge of the world, the edge of the unknown. He has entered the space that Emerson calls “I and the Abyss,” the space of the American sublime.

In this region: out of all potential words, these words alone; out of all potential memories, this memory alone. It is the emerging rhythm itself that creates the Proustian sensation of being in two places at once, “A man, yet by these tears a little boy again, / Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves.” Whitman creates through the rhetorical rhythm of these lines the very urgency of fundamental memory triggered and issuing forth. He splits himself off and moves seamlessly between the third person and the first person. And as the bird chanted to him (“From the memories of the bird that chanted to me”) so he chants to us (“I, chanter of pains and joys”). This is a poem of poetic vocation.

It is telling that Whitman builds to the self-command, “A reminiscence sing.” He memorializes the memory in song. There is an element of lullaby in this poem, the lulling motion of the waves, the consoling sound of the sea. But this is a lullaby that wounds (as García Lorca said about Spanish lullabies), a lullaby of sadness that permeates the very universe itself, a lullaby that moves from chanting to singing. Paul Val�ry calls the passage from prose to verse, from speech to song, from walking to dancing, “a moment that is at once action and dream.” Whitman creates such a moment here. He would spin an enchantment beyond pain and joy, he would become the poetic shaman who authors that reminiscence for us, who magically summons up the experience in us.

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Originally Published: January 23, 2006

COMMENTS (9)

On January 10, 2007 at 2:37pm Sunil Kumar wrote:
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On March 4, 2008 at 7:36am Julia Devardhi wrote:
In this Poem Whitman recreates a boyhood experience.The boy is not just an ordinary boy -he is an "outsetting bard'.There is unity that the boy feels with the bird as they both contain an absorption in an optimistic welcome of nature.

On November 18, 2008 at 5:46pm Chelsea wrote:
"Rhythm would lift the poem off the page, it would bewitch the sounds of language, hypnotize the words into memorable phrases." I agree with with Hirsh's statement because if a poem has rhythm the effect of the poem enlightens the readers involvement causing them to remember the poem. A poem that has no rhythm is very dull the reader does not take anything with them. "It is related to the pulse, the heartbeat, the way we breathe. It takes us into ourselves; it takes us out of ourselves. It differentiates us; it unites us to the cosmos." Rhythm does link us together Hirsh is right it is like a heartbeat, we all have one and can relate to the flow of the words. Hirsh does a tremendous job on this article.

On November 18, 2008 at 7:14pm Candace :) wrote:
I really enjoyed this essay, and the references Hirsch made to rythm. Finally, an essay specifically dwelling upon rythm- my favorite aspect of poetry! I love when I am able to read a poem out loud and it makes a beat, or when I even try to sing it. The rythm creates a more fun and exciting poem to read which in turn makes it easier to understand and connect to rather than a dull, boring poem.

"Rhythm is all about recurrence and change. It is poetry’s way of charging the depths, hitting the fathomless. It is oceanic. I would say with Robert Graves that there is a rhythm of emotions that conditions the musical rhythms, that mental bracing and relaxing which comes to us through our sensuous impressions. It is the emotion—the very rhythm of the emotion—that determines the texture of the sounds. " This quote of Hirsch's is very powerful. His choice of words just makes the rythm of poetry sound so tasty and delicious. I very much agree to what he has said in this essay and I really can't think of anything else to add to this paragraph. Once again, I really enjoyed this essay.

On November 18, 2008 at 7:38pm wrote:
Hirsch says, "In this region: out of all potential words, these words alone; out of all potential memories, this memory alone. It is the emerging rhythm itself that creates the Proustian sensation of being in two places at once, “A man, yet by these tears a little boy again, / Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves.” Whitman creates through the rhetorical rhythm of these lines the very urgency of fundamental memory triggered and issuing forth."

Rhythm is also what I love most about poetry. Not only does it create a beating in my mind but it sort of makes my blood flow to rhythm when i read. I think that different rhythms symbolize different emotions. A sporadic rhythm symbolizes an energetic, dramatic tone. Likewise, a flowy rhythm, to me, symbolizes a more low-key, meditative tone. Sometimes, if i am in a sad mood, i like to read fun, catchy poems because the rhythm contrasts the rhythm i am feeling that day. I think that rhythm helps people get through life day to day-without rhythm there would be complete chaos and nothing would flow the way it is intended to.

On November 18, 2008 at 8:59pm Emily wrote:
I do completely agree with this essay, Hirsch has made his point. I believe that not only for entertainment value, but to the overall tone of a poem, rhythm is essential. It is not always the importance of the words, it is not the shape of the poem, it is the rhythm. A rhythm as Hirsch mentions can pull you in, persuade your emotions without you even having a clue. The rhythm can cause you to love or hate a poem.

On November 18, 2008 at 9:12pm Maggie wrote:
In this article, Hirsch has finally caught up with us: we have been discussing the significance of rhythm in poetry for quite some time now, and I feel as though we have already beaten the subject to the point of death. Though Hirsch praises rhythm in this article, what does it say about his poetic priorities that the importance of rhythm is not mentioned until the fourth-to-last article? Hirsch does not strike me as the type who is inclined to “save the best for last,” and I therefore find it interesting that rhythm is addressed after shaped poetry, which I find to be a fairly obscure and frivolous subject in comparison with something as natural as rhythm. Rhythm is inherent in poetry: there isn’t a question of whether or not it is present: it is there. If one is unable to find a rhythm, one is not looking (or listening, or perhaps feeling) hard enough. As a previous post implied, the only thing that does not have rhythm is complete and utter chaos, which is so unknowable that our earthly notions of chaos probably do have their own rhythms.

On November 18, 2008 at 10:14pm Jordan Dodderer wrote:
Edward Hirsch, we're finally on the same page! "It is the combination in English of stressed and unstressed syllables that creates a feeling of fixity and flux, of surprise and inevitability. Rhythm is all about recurrence and change." Rhythm, it is not the staedy beat that catches your eye. Apparent rhythm is nothing more than the repetitive humdrum of every day motion. Hirsch's heartbeat of humanity, that bring us all together -is boring. However, what notion Hirsch catches here is the essential beauty of the offbeat. That syncopated rhythm that gives you that moment of "ahh." An epiphany of sorts, the off rhythm adds interest, punctuation, and emphasis. That off moment helps break us from the every day beat, so that we don't fall into a steady rhythm, but are rather caught off guard by the utter beauty and sheer genius that rhythm can provide us.

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 Edward  Hirsch

Biography

Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running  “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his own work, as well as demonstrated his adeptness at explicating the nuances and shades of feeling, tradition, and craft at . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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