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Gutman, S.T. (1987). Conflations in Walt Whitman's “Out of the Cradle”. Am. Imago, 44(2):149-157.

(1987). American Imago, 44(2):149-157

Conflations in Walt Whitman's “Out of the Cradle”

Stanley T. Gutman

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” recounts three stages in the life of Walt Whitman. The first was the loss of the oceanic security of his mother's womb, a loss repeated in the loss of his mother's breast and the birth of his younger brother.

Twelve years later, Whitman felt the first stirrings of adult sexuality, puberty—in particular, as he tells us, he went down to the beach one night, watched the birds and heard the waves, and thought of love and mating.

And then, some twenty-five years later—now a man who had dedicated himself to being a poet—he confronted the recent death of his father and his own sexual loneliness and questioned just what it was that had made him choose poetry as a vocation. He looked back at his past to understand his present predicament and to see what lessons the past could teach about the future.

In “Out of the Cradle,” Whitman superimposes these three experiences, conflates the three stages, so that as we read the poem, we are not always clear which of the three experiences are referred to by the material of the poem. To a large extent, this is Whitman's doing; and yet our habit of symbolic reading contributes to this conflation: For us, as for Whitman, the merging of the three stages makes each incident or phrase resonate with possible meanings for each of the stages. For the reader who prefers density of meaning and an unclosed interpretive horizon of symbolic reverberations, Whitman's conflation is a successful poetic act. For the more rational reader, the poem is fuzzy, unclear, sentimental; in the view of Richard Chase, a sympathetic but astute reader of Whitman, the poem is “melodramatic.”1


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