Warbling Whitman

December 24: Walt Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," eventually one of the most well-known poems in Leaves of Grass, was published on this day in 1859. Titled "A Child's Reminiscence" 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 Christmas or New Year's present to them, the curious warble, by Walt Whitman, of "A Child's Reminiscence," on our First Page. Like the "Leaves of Grass," the purport of this wild and plaintive song, well-enveloped, and eluding definition, is positive and unquestionable, like the effect of music.

The Christmas note is sounded by a mocking-bird in the central 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 Leaves of Grass came out in 1855; in 1859, as he prepared his upcoming third edition, Whitman tried to get as much exposure in the periodicals as possible. In this spirit, Whitman two weeks later followed up the poem's first publication with his own anonymous critique of it (and of the poet), this also published in The Saturday Press:

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

In answer to these questions, Whitman says that Whitman is a new voice, one appealing to "You, bold American! and ye future two hundred millions of bold Americans" who are tired of all the tired, old, Old World voices. The self-review closes by toasting the song, if not the singer:

Ah, if this Walt Whitman, as he keeps on, should ever succeed in presenting such music, such a poem, an identity, emblematic, in the regions of creative art, of the wondrous all-America, material and moral, he would indeed do something. And if he don't, the Mocking-Bird may at least have the satisfaction of dying in a good cause. But then again he looks so little like 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.

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