Out of the ceaselessly rocking cradle of the sea waves, a memory comes back to the poet. He recalls that as a child, he left his bed and "wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot" in search of the mystery of life and death. He is a man now but "by these tears a little boy again," and he throws himself on the shore "confronting the waves." He is a "chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter," and he uses all his experiences but goes beyond them.
The experience he now recalls is that on the Paumanok seashore one May, when lilacs were in bloom, he observed two mockingbirds, "feather'd guests from Alabama." The female crouch'd on her nest, silent," and the male went "to and fro near at hand." The birds sang of their love; the words "two together" summed up their existence. One day the female disappeared, "may-be kill'd, unknown to her mate." The male anxiously awaited her, He addressed the wind: "I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me." His song penetrated the heart of the curious boy who "treasur'd every note for he understood the meaning of the bird, whom he called his "brother."
The bird's lament, or "aria," affected the boy deeply. Every shadow seemed to the bird the hoped-for shape of his mate reappearing. He had loved, but now "we two [are] together no more.
The notes of the bird were echoed by the moaning sea, "the fierce old mother." To the boy who became the poet, "to the outsetting bard," the sea hinted at secrets. The boy eagerly asked the sea to let him know the ultimate meaning, "the word final, superior to all." Before daybreak the sea whispered to the poet the "delicious word death . . . /Death, death."
In this experience the boy attempted to fuse the vision of the sea with that of the bird, and this knowledge marked the beginning of the poet in him. The bird, the solitary singer, was a projection of the boy's consciousness. The sea, like the "old crone rocking the cradle," whispered the key word in his ears.
This poem was first published under the title "A Child's Reminiscence" (1859), was later called "A Word out of the Sea" (1860), and the present, highly symbolic title was given it in 1871. The present title suggests "a word from the sea," and that word is death, which is the second phase in the process of birthdeath-rebirth.
The poem, an elegy, is thought to be based on an intensely personal experience of the poet. just what that experience was is a favorite but fruitless field of speculation for Whitman's biographers. The poem asserts the triumph of the eternal life over death. The meaning of the poem is not stated explicitly, but it springs naturally from a recollection of the narrator's childhood days. Whitman imaginatively recreates the childhood experience of this inquiring lad and also shows how the boy becomes a man, and the man, a poet. This time sequence is as much the essence of the poem as is the growth of the consciousness of the poet. Memory plays an important part in this dramatic development. First, the boy tries to absorb the moving song of the mockingbird. Later, the boy replaces the bird as a significant character in the drama because he attempts to fuse the substance of the bird's song with the secret emanating from the sea; this synthesis is, in essence, his poetry. The word "death" is "delicious" because it is a prerequisite for rebirth. Thus the secret of life which the boy grasps from the sea is the recurrent pattern of birth-death-rebirth.
"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is one of Whitman's great poems because of his use of image and symbol. The title itself is a symbol of birth. The sun and the moon, the land and the sea, and the stars and the sea waves contribute to the atmosphere and symbolic scenery in the poem. These images deepen the effect of the emotions in the poem, as in the bird's song, and are part of the dramatic structure. The poem is very melodious and rhythmic and may itself be compared to an aria (in opera, an aria is an elaborate melody sung by one voice). Its use of dactylic and trochaic meter is very appropriate in describing the motion of the sea waves and their meaning.