Text: Ned. J. Davison, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1968, vol. I, No. 1, 1:6-7


[page 6, column 1:]

“The Raven” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”

University of New Mexico

Because Whitman and Poe display radically different temperaments and dissimilar styles in their most characteristic works, the possibility of Poe’s having had a precise influence on Whitman has, to my knowledge, never been widely considered (1). We know, however, that among the poems Whitman best liked to read aloud was Poe’s “The Raven.” (2) There is evidence, I believe, that this poem did in fact influence Whitman in the creation of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” There is a persistent similarity in symbol, diction, and episode despite the obviously disparate effects achieved. This is not to suggest these poems are alike — merely that significantly similar elements appear in essential roles in both poems. The emotion that gives form to both works is the anguish and loneliness suffered from the loss of the beloved. Also in both, the lover, unable to accept the knowledge of death, cries out questions whose answers he intuitively anticipates and, especially in Poe’s poem, “perversely” desires.

The student in “The Raven” initiates his interrogation with an air of macabre playfulness; he recognizes that what the raven utters is rote and without meaning, but he quickly seizes upon the somber appropriateness of the reply and is swept into the perverse mockery of tailoring his inquiries to the inevitable answer. Ultimately losing all control over the game, he wills the annihilation of his spirit, and his soul is doomed to despair. In “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” the queries of the he-bird, although externally dissimilar, bear a psychic resemblance to the dialogue in “The Raven.” Just as the nature of the raven’s reply is inevitable, so is the denial of the he-bird’s plea presaged in the declaration:

One forenoon the she-bird crouch ’d not on the nest,

Nor return ’d that afternoon, nor the next,

Nor ever appear ’d again. [5] (3)

The he-bird struggles against the certainty of death, creating out of the sea, the land, and the sky, the image of his lost love:

O night! do I not see my love fluttering

out among the breakers?

What is that little black thing I see

there in the white? [14]

·   ·   ·

High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves,

Surely you must know who is here, is here

You must know who I am, my love. [16]

·   ·   ·

Low-hanging moon!

What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?

O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!

O moon do not keep her from me any longer. [17]

·   ·   ·

O rising stars!

Perhaps the one I want so much will rise,

will rise with some of you. [19]

[column 2:]

The attempt to bend nature and events to the will of the poet, to make them what the poet desires them to be, characterizes the he-bird’s search. The sense and energy of distortion is strengthened by the repeated image and phonic impact of “low-hanging moon,” lagging heavy with love, which conspires against the lover. Not only is the somber tone of “The Raven” echoed here to some extent, but likewise the he-bird’s final reaching out in an ultimate appeal to the heavens is a plea for the attainment of the beloved, as it is in Poe also: “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, / It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —” [16].

When the final notes of the he-bird’s lament are sung, the role of the interrogator is transferred to the child-poet, whose own spirit has been analogous throughout to that of the he-bird. The child-poet continues the search for understanding of the experience, and once again the query anticipates the reply:

O give me the clew!

(it lurks in the night here somewhere,)

O if I am to have so much, let me have more! [31]


A word then, (for I will conquer it,)

The word final, superior to all,

Subtle, sent up — what is it? — I listen;

Are you whispering it,

and have been all the time, you sea-waves,

Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands? [32]


Whereto answering, the sea . . .

Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death. . . . [33]

For Whitman the answer, initially, is death, for Poe it is nothingness. Poe’s inquiry begins with death and concludes with the negation of spiritual life. Whitman, by contrast, begins with life, passes through death, and continues beyond into a new life which is now grasped as the cosmic and cyclical movement of Nature, symbolized by the sea — the “cradle endlessly rocking.”

The image of the sea is also integral to the sensuality of the lover’s lament. The rhythmical motion of the surf as established in the repetition of phrases — indeed the musical and conceptual essence of the poem — suggests more, certainly, than death or simply the lullaby of the cradle. The sea here, as elsewhere in Whitman, is at least a threefold symbol; it is the cradle of youth and innocence, the marriage bed of manhood and love, and the grave of old age and death. In “Out of the Cradle” the endless repetition of the multiple symbol allows no single element to dominate. Thus where in Poe generally the sea serves as a symbol of total negation, in Whitman it is an affirmation of cosmic continuity. Herein lies the radical difference between the two poems, a difference that has obscured, I believe, their possible relationship.

The dramatic burdens carried by the protagonists of “The Raven” and “Out of the Cradle” are also distributed, as is immediately apparent, very differently. While the she-bird’s role is essentially that of the lost Lenore, the function of the he-bird, rather than paralleling that of the raven, corresponds to the role of the student in Poe’s poem. In Whitman, furthermore, two new personae have been added — the poet as a child and the poet as a man recalling the dramatic experience. Although we have two actors and an actor-commentator in Whitman’s poem who [page 6:] replace only one speaker — the student — in Poe, the trio is, in reality, a poetic unit, each component serving a separate function yet each a part of the same single sensibility. The role of this sensibility, though more complex in Whitman, is nonetheless parallel to the single protagonist in “The Raven.” The raven itself is related to the he-bird in dramatic function to the degree that the he-bird is, like the raven, a harbinger of knowledge. Just as the raven’s stolid repetition of “nevermore” leads the student to the full assessment of his soul, so does the lament of the he-bird lead the child-poet to an understanding of life. The source of this knowledge is interestingly analogous. Poe writes: “ ‘Prophet! ’ said I, ‘thing of evil! prophet still, if bird or devil! — / Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore . . . ’ “ [15]. And Whitman: “Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul,) / Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?” [29]

Although Poe’s raven embodies the satanical, and Whitman’s he-bird is merely a “demon” (spirit), both are supernatural and both are born of the sea, darkness, and the unknown. The distinction between the dramatic function of the birds stems primarily from the fact that the raven has a more obviously symbolic role than does the he-bird. Whitman’s bird is primarily the vehicle of love’s joy and despair, whereas the raven is an objectification of darkness and of the evil of the unknown. The drama of the raven is surpassed, however, in Whitman’s figure of the sea which ultimately assumes the raven’s oracular role. It is the sea, the source of life and knowledge, that finally provides the solution to the riddle. In both poems the birds act as mirrored images of the personae’s own intuitions and psychic states, although the functions of oracle which the raven and the sea share in these poems are only approximate.

In Whitman’s poem the child-poet’s experience is both personal and ontological; the nature of existence is the ultimate subject of the poem. The he-bird becomes among other things the personification of the extremes of affective life, joy and despair, and by extension, of birth and death, and as comprehended by the poet the individual expression of a process which is perpetuated by the poet himself:

[1] fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,

That he sang to me in the moonlight

on Paumanok’s gray beach,

With the thousand responsive songs at random. . . . [34]

The formal relationship of these poems is further corroborated in the similarity of poetic diction and figures. Both poems largely depend upon incantation for their effect. The imploring repetition of words and tone and the nocturnal melancholy are strikingly alike. These similarities do not depend upon rhyme and meter; they reside primarily in an analogous use of diction and of rhythmic phrase repetition. As is obvious, in Poe such repetitions are rigidly consistent whereas in Whitman they are less symmetrical and regularized. The suggestion of “The Raven” becomes especially insistent, however, in the concluding stanza of the mocking-bird’s song: “But my mate no more, no more with me! / We two together no more” [27]. From this Whitman finally proceeds to the precise statement [column 2:] where Poe’s word forces its way to the surface:

O you singer solitary,

singing by yourself, projecting me,

O solitary me listening,

never more shall I cease perpetuating you,

Never more shall I escape,

never more the reverberations,

Never more the cries of unsatisfied love

be absent from me. . . . [30]

The “nevermore” with which Poe’s student is faced begins as the eternal separation from his love and concludes as the annihilation of his spirit; Whitman is also faced with the loss of love, but, in contrast to Poe, is subsequently thrust forward by the experience into the office of poet where he is charged with the burden of song and the proclamation of love as the universal doctrine. The “never more” of Whitman becomes a commencement rather than a conclusion, an awakening to the responsibilities of the poetic spirit.

Certainly Romantic verse is not lacking in poems which mourn a beloved, and the lament of the solitary singer is common enough that the various devices shared by these poems could hardly be considered foreign to the poetry of the period. Neither is the sea as a symbol of longing and death in any way unique. The same may be said of the appearance of “no more” and “nevermore”; yet the presence of the combination of these elements in both poems suggests strongly that Whitman derived artistic stimulation, consciously or not, from Poe. Certainly Whitman’s repeated recitations of “The Raven” would have encouraged their assimilation and subsequent adaptation to his own poetic vision.



(1)  They are much closer in their more intimate poems. Poe’s “Fairyland” and “City in the Sea” are not wholly unlike “Trickle Drops” and other of Whitman’s less oratorical poems. The fact that the French Symbolists borrowed from both supports the notion of a more common ground of inspiration than may be supposed. If we place Baudelaire between Poe and Whitman, for example, they take on a compatibility that at the outset would seem unlikely. (I am indebted to the Editor of the Poe Newsletter for calling my attention to Milton Hindus ’ prior note of 1957 which suggests a relationship between “Out of the Cradle” and “The Raven,” in “Whitman and Poe,” Walt Whitman Review, III (March 1957) 5-6. Hindus observes similarities in theme and in particular is struck by the echo of one of Poe’s lines in the Whitman poem: “We cannot . . . suppose that the line ‘Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul) ’ which opens section 9 of the poem . . . is an intentional allusion to Poe’s ‘Raven ’, yet it has always called up in my mind the line twice repeated by the earlier poet: ’ “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil. Prophet still, if bird or devil”. ’)

(2)  Whitman “liked to read aloud, not only from his own poems but also from favorite authors. . . .  Clifton J. Furness has made up a list of Whitman’s oral readings. The most important are: ‘The Diver, ’ by Schiller; ‘Ode on the Passions, ’ by Collins; Anacreon’s ‘The Midnight Visit, ’ translated by Thomas Moore; and Poe’s ‘The Raven ’.” Frederik Schyberg, Walt Whitman, tr. E. A. Allen (New York, 1951), p. 242.

(3)  The numerals following the quotations of verse designate the stanza cited. Texts followed are from the Modern Library editions of Poe and Whitman, 1951 and 1950 respectively.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]