Thursday, March 15, 2007

Whitman’s Elegies:

Whitman’s Elegies:

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking


When Lilacs last in Dooryard Bloom’d

In Walt Whitman’s great elegy, “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman creates powerful, moving emotion that has raised this poem to among the finest elegies in the English canon. It captures the mourning of an entire nation for the loss of their friend and leader, President Lincoln. However, the idea and format are not altogether original to this poem; Whitman builds this masterpiece in the mold and mirror of another of his great earlier works, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Both poems are elegies sharing concurrent themes and meaning. “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” expounds upon and makes explicit that which is already latent in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. “Out of the Cradle” is a metaphor for how Whitman finds his poetic voice and calling. Simultaneously, he discovers “the key,” a word that is found in much of Whitman’s poetry: death (200). The themes of death and Whitman’s poetic voice, first discovered in “Out of the Cradle,” are further developed and emphasized in “When Lilacs Last.”

Whitman celebrates the beauty of death and the mourning of lost love. In both poems, the voice of the mourning and loss comes from the “trembling throat” of a bird (203). The “old crone rocking the cradle” (a metaphor for the sea) whispers to him the “delicious word death” (205). Many people do not readily consider death as “delicious,” but it is consistent with “When Lilacs Last” and Leaves of Grass. In “Out of the Cradle,” death is first only mentioned in regard to the loss of the singing birds mate. It is referred to as “the word stronger and more delicious than any” (200). Whitman doesn’t allude to the word until nearly the end of the poem. It is buried beneath the representation of sorrow, grief, and intense mourning; its presence is vaguely implicit. At the end, he unmasks his disguised theme as “death, death, death, death, death”(205).

This thematic epiphany comes quickly on the heels his artistic epiphany to his calling to write. These are the two themes of the poem, and they are unveiled nearly simultaneously. The bird songs of loss inspire and awe Whitman. It is in these songs of mourning and distress that Whitman reaches poetic heights that he arguably never tops:

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. (203)

Death is understood in relation to the loss suffered by those who survive and not in relation to those who experience the inevitable mortal change. The reader doesn’t know what befell the female bird in “Out of the Cradle,” he only can hear the desperate song of the he-bird that remains behind, as Whitman and all of America are left behind when Lincoln dies. It is from hearing the song of the bird that Walt Whitman finds his poetic inspiration to write about Lincoln. He says, “Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake” (204). He finds “a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours, / A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die” (204). Whitman gives his oath never to stop “perpetuating” the songs of the warbling bird (songs of death).

The representation of these themes in “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” is much more developed and evident than they were in “Out of the Cradle.” The thought of death is not disguised or secondary, but is the primary representation of this poem. The first four sections are different sensual representations of mourning (smell, sight, and sound), but the fifth part is a description of Lincoln’s funeral procession. Whitman portrays “the silent sea of faces” of the mourning Americans as they line the streets. In their midst is the coffin of the dead moving passed. Death is visible and present in a way that it isn’t in “0ut of the Cradle.” The poem is proclaimed as “a song to you, O sane and sacred death” (266). This death is the same word that was whispered by that “old crone” in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The difference being that in “Out of the Cradle,” death was whispered at the end of the poem, and in “When Lilacs Last” death is proclaimed and sung early and often. In “Out of the Cradle,” death is guised in a melody of woe. In “When Lilacs Last,” the coffin is in full view of those who suffer the loss.

Walt asks himself, “O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved? / And how shall I deck my song” in wondering how to artistically pay proper homage to the one he loved so much (266-7)? Whitman is seeking to practice the art that is taught to him by the mourning songs of the he-bird in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Whitman did not possess the calling until the end of this poem, so he could clearly not articulate such a desire in the middle of it. In ‘When Lilacs Last,” however, he is his older self (not the child of “Out of the Cradle”) and ponders his writing while he is in the very process of it. Thus the two poems show a progression in the artist. They represent the maturation of Whitman as a poet. He begins as a child, experiences his call to write, grows to become a writer, and then is faced with writing about the death of the man he most admired. All the while, death is there in his first lesson and has remained.

In “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” as the name suggests, these themes are born and begun. Walt gives himself and his readers his oath to pursue eagerly his artistic gift, and also vouches for the infinite importance and pervasiveness of the word and action of death. Beyond these oaths there is nothing else. In “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman draws evidence for his claims. Surely, the act of writing “Out of the Cradle,” itself, could be viewed as evidence for his poetic gift, but it is not discussed internally within the poem as it is in “When Lilacs Last.” “Out of the Cradle” is about Whitman’s genesis as a writer where “When Lilacs Last” is about undertaking the process of writing. In this poem he ponders these themes with specific detail. The death of a man, President Lincoln, is portrayed and reflected onto his nation. The effort and thought of writing this piece is represented with questions of “how shall I deck my song” (267). He decks it well.

Work Cited

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Bantam, 1983.

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