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Schapiro, B. (1979). Shelley's Alastor and Whitman's Out of the Cradle: The Ambivalent Mother. Am. Imago, 36(3):245-259.

(1979). American Imago, 36(3):245-259

Shelley's Alastor and Whitman's Out of the Cradle: The Ambivalent Mother

Barbara Schapiro

Shelley and Whitman may seem an unlikely pair for a comparative study. Shelley's transcendent themes stand in contrast to Whitman's celebration of the body and his cataloguing of the concrete in the objective world around him. Yet, both are engaged in similar psychological conflicts, and the differences in poetic form reflect, to some degree, their varying success at resolving these conflicts. Both Shelley's “Alastor” and Whitman's “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” describe an intensely narcissistic situation; both depict the search for a lost ideal mate. The two poems express basic feelings of abandonment and deprivation, and both expose a perilously weak identity and a sense of reality which threatens to dissolve.

The narcissistic orientation of “Alastor” and “Out of the Cradle” is informed by a highly ambivalent relationship with and strong fixation on the mother imago. The mother is portrayed as the loving comforter and nourisher, as the idealized salvation, and also as the cruel and forbidding destroyer, as death. “Alastor” presents an almost perfect expression of this condition. It is regressive and indulgent—a narcissistic lament—a self-pitying poem of desolation and despair. Whitman's “Out of the Cradle” is more complex. It works through the schizoid-narcissistic phase and transcends it, revealing a stronger, more integrated ego. It presents a confrontation with painful reality which Shelley's poem does not achieve. The mother is recognized and accepted as a reality outside the self, both “good” and “bad,” as the source of both love and death. Thus, “Out of the Cradle” is not a poem of self-pity nor of morbid dissolution, as some critics would have it, but a healthy and affirmative expression of developing identity and integration of self.

“Alastor” begins with a direct address to the Mother in which the poet avows his love and anxiously appeals for her favor.

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