Warbling Whitman

December 24: WaltWhitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” eventually one ofthe most well-known poems in Leaves ofGrass, was published on this day in 1859. Titled “A Child’sReminiscence” when it first appeared in the New York Saturday Press, the editors framed the poem as a seasonal gift:

Our readers may, if they choose, consider as our Christmasor New Year’s present to them, the curious warble, by Walt Whitman, of “AChild’s Reminiscence,” on our First Page. Like the “Leaves ofGrass,” the purport of this wild and plaintive song, well-enveloped, andeluding definition, is positive and unquestionable, like the effect of music.

The Christmas note is sounded by a mocking-bird in thecentral section of Whitman’s “curious warble”:

O throat! O trembling throat!

Sound clearer through the atmosphere!

Pierce the woods, the earth,

Somewhere listening to catch you

                          must be the one I want.

Shake out carols!

Solitary here, the night’s carols!

Carols of lonesome love! death’s carols!

Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!

O under that moon where she droops

                          almost down into the sea!

O reckless despairing carols.

The first edition of Leavesof Grass came out in 1855; in 1859, as he prepared his upcoming thirdedition, Whitman tried to get as much exposure in the periodicals as possible.In this spirit, Whitman two weeks later followed up the poem’s firstpublication with his own anonymous critique of it (and of the poet), this alsopublished in The Saturday Press:

Is this man really any artist at all? Or not plainly a sortof naked and hairy savage, come among us, with yelps and howls, disregardingall our lovely metrical laws? How can it be that he offends so many and somuch?

In answer to these questions, Whitman says that Whitman is anew voice, one appealing to “You, bold American! and ye future two hundredmillions of bold Americans” who are tired of all the tired, old, Old Worldvoices. The self-review closes by toasting the song, if not the singer:

Ah, if this Walt Whitman, as he keeps on, should eversucceed in presenting such music, such a poem, an identity, emblematic, in theregions of creative art, of the wondrous all-America, material and moral, hewould indeed do something. And if he don’t, the Mocking-Bird may at least havethe satisfaction of dying in a good cause. But then again he looks so littlelike dying, anyhow.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.