This poem was written in 1859 and incorporated into the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. It describes a young boy’s awakening as a poet, mentored by nature and his own maturing consciousness. The poem is loose in its form, except for the sections that purport to be a transcript of the bird’s call, which are musical in their repetition of words and phrases. The opening of the poem is marked by an abundance of repeated prepositions describing movement—out, over, down, up, from—which appear regularly later in the poem and which convey the sense of a struggle, in this case the poet’s struggle to come to consciousness.
Unlike most of Whitman’s poems, “Out of the Cradle” has a fairly distinct plot line. A young boy watches a pair of birds nesting on the beach near his home, and marvels at their relationship to one another. One day the female bird fails to return. The male stays near the nest, calling for his lost mate. The male’s cries touch something in the boy, and he seems to be able to translate what the bird is saying. Brought to tears by the bird’s pathos, he asks nature to give him the one word “superior to all.” In the rustle of the ocean at his feet, he discerns the word “death,” which continues, along with the bird’s song, to have a presence in his poetry.
This is another poem that links Whitman to the Romantics. The “birth of the poet” genre was of particular importance to Wordsworth, whose massive Prelude details his artistic coming-of-age in detail. Like Wordsworth, Whitman claims to take his inspiration from nature. Where Wordsworth is inspired by a wordless feeling of awe, though, Whitman finds an opportunity to anthropomorphize, and nature gives him very specific answers to his questions about overarching concepts. Nature is a tabula rasa onto which the poet can project himself. He conquers it, inscribes it. While it may become a part of him that is always present, the fact that it does so seems to be by his permission.
The epiphany surrounding the word “death” seems appropriate, for in other poems of Whitman’s we have seen death described as the ultimate tool for democracy and sympathy. Here death is shown to be the one lesson a child must learn, whether from nature or from an elder. Only the realization of death can lead to emotional and artistic maturity. Death, for one as interested as Whitman in the place of the individual in the universe, is a means for achieving perspective: while your thoughts may seem profound and unique in the moment, you are a mere speck in existence. Thus the contemplation of death allows for one to move beyond oneself, to consider the whole. Perhaps this is why the old crone disrupts the end of the poem: she symbolizes an alternative possibility, the means by which someone else may have come to the same realization as Whitman. In the end the bird, although functionally important in Whitman’s development, is insignificant in the face of the abstract sea: death, which is the concept he introduces, remains as the important factor.
Thus although “Out of the Cradle” can be described as a poem about the birth of the poet, it can also be read as a poem about the death of the self. In the end, on the larger scale, these two phenomena are one and the same.