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Whitman, feuille à feuille

Agnès Derail
Cécile Roudeau

Whitman’s Fitful Rhythms

Lacy Rumsey

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1Like many poets, Whitman prefers, in his published remarks on rhythm and meter, analogy to precise explanation. In consequence, these remarks offer relatively little help to readers who seek to understand the rhythms of Whitman’s own poetry. A well-known example is the following statement, from the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass:

  • 1 W. Whitman, “Preface – 1855,” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, p. 621-622.

The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form. The fluency and ornaments of the finest poems or music or orations or recitations are not independent but dependent.1

  • 2 Coleridge gave his definition of organic form during a lecture on Shakespeare: it “is innate, it [… (...)

2This defence of organic form is very close to those offered in earlier decades by Schlegel and Coleridge.2 It is generally taken to suggest that Whitman’s variable rhythms and line-lengths should be understood as necessary side-effects of the variety of his thought. This is, of course, helpful, both in shaping readers’ general expectations as they approach Whitman’s poetry, and in creating connections with comparable moments in literary history. However, the statement gives little guidance as to how the rhythms of Leaves of Grass actually sound line by line, or what role they may play in the aesthetic and interpretative experience of poems.

3A more substantial hint is contained in a manuscript note of 1872:

  • 3 W. Whitman, “Walt Whitman. The late Dartmouth College utterance of the above named celebrity...” Th (...)

He [i. e. Whitman himself] dismisses without ceremony all the orthodox accoutrements, tropes, verbal haberdashery, “feet,” and the entire stock in trade of rhyme talking heroes and heroines […] and constructs his verse in a loose and free metre of his own, of an irregular length of lines, apparently lawless at first perusal, although on closer examination a certain regularity appears, like the recurrence of lesser and larger waves on the sea-shore, rolling in without intermission, and fitfully rising and falling.3

  • 4 T. S. Eliot, “Reflections on ‘Vers Libre’,” (1917), Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, Frank Kermode (e (...)

4Whitman’s analogy between poetic rhythm and the rhythm of the sea appears at first sight merely conventional. However, it may include an important insight, which is ahead of its time. Whitman suggests that we should expect to experience the rhythm of his poetry as “fitfully rising and falling”; it will sometimes be more rhythmic, like the larger waves in his analogy, and sometimes less. In suggesting that the non-metrical or free-verse poem moves between moments of strong rhythm, and moments of weak rhythm, he anticipates some of the best subsequent critical accounts of free verse: for example, T.S. Eliot’s analysis of free verse as advancing towards regularity, then retreating from it, or discussion by contemporary prosodists such as Derek Attridge and Richard Cureton.4 Whitman’s notion of fitfulness thus suggests ways of thinking about his prosody that go beyond general statements of organic form, instead drawing closer to an account of how the rhythms of Leaves of Grass are actually experienced.

  • 5 Gay Wilson Allen, Wilson, American Prosody, New York, Octagon (1935), 1978, chap. 8, “Walt Whitman” (...)

5Before entering more detailed discussion, it is necessary to specify what will be meant in this study by the word rhythm. In discussions of Whitman’s poetry, as elsewhere, the word may have many different meanings, of which two are particularly significant. One usage of rhythm means by it the overall shape or discourse structure of the poem—the way in which its constituent parts, both formal and conceptual, fuse together into a whole. Within Whitman studies, this tradition of analysis goes back, in English at least, to Gay Wilson Allen, whose analyses of what he calls Whitman’s “thought-rhythm” are still very valuable, as is the refinement of these methods that has been proposed by James Perrin Warren.5 However, this is not the usage adopted in this essay, which instead applies the word rhythm more narrowly, and perhaps more traditionally, to those perceptual and cognitive experiences that derive from patterns of salience or prominence in spoken language. Rhythm, in this study, refers, then, to what are usually referred to as stress patterns, and to the way we respond to them via perception, memory and expectation.

  • 6 For foot-based discussion of aspects of Whitman’s poetry, see, e. g., A. Finch, The Ghost of Meter, (...)

6Many students still learn to scan the stress patterns of poetry via the vocabulary and methods of classical, foot-based prosody. This approach has significant theoretical weaknesses—notably, the fact that classical feet are analytical constructs which are not strongly grounded in the phonology of English, nor in the perception of rhythm—but is historically important, and when sensitively used can make a useful contribution to readings of strict accentual-syllabic meter. However, it is much less helpful when applied to syllabically more various forms, such as accentual meter, or free verse; the latter is particularly unsuited to subdivision into feet, even if critics have attempted to do so.6 A model that is better suited to free verse, and indeed also to metrical verse, is the “beat prosody” first put forward in Derek Attridge’s The Rhythms of English Poetry (1982), which does not seek to subdivide lines in this way. Beat prosody holds that the rhythm of poetry in English is created by an alternation of strong and weak pulses, referred to as beats and offbeats respectively:

  • 7 Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 9.

We say that a stretch of language has beats when, on hearing it or reading it aloud, we sense an impulse to move at regularly occurring places—to bring down the hand, to nod the head, to tap the foot.7

7Beats and offbeats are, like the beats of music, mental events: the task of beat prosody is to link those mental events to the phonological characteristics of poetry read aloud. The following scansion of l. 224 of “Passage to India” (LG, p. 353), for example, suggests that it will give rise, in the reader’s or listener’s experience, to three beats and three offbeats:

  • 8 These scansion marks are taken from D. Attridge, Poetic Rhythm. They are better suited to free vers (...)
  • 9 Such simple mappings of stress pattern onto beat pattern facilitate foot-scansion, which has no con (...)

8The scansion marks above syllables associated with beats are underlined; the scansion marks above syllables associated with offbeats are not. The scansion also shows how the beats relate to the phonological characteristics of the language. Each of this line’s three beats is associated with a stressed syllable, marked with a slash (/). Each of its three offbeats is associated with either one (x) or two (xx) unstressed syllables.8 The relation between beat pattern and stress pattern in this line is, therefore, a straightforward one.9

  • 10 On intonation groups in poetry, see Lacy Rumsey, “‘Da-DA-da-da-da’: Intonation and Poetic Form,” Th (...)

9If the main aim of beat prosody is to describe metrical poetry, it has also been used to describe the fitful rhythms of free verse. In any free verse text, some passages are strongly rhythmic, and some are not. Those that are strongly rhythmic are, in the analysis offered by beat prosody, those that give rise to the perception of beats—as, for example, in the line just scanned. Strong rhythmicity of this kind depends on the intonational characteristics of the line when read aloud: its division into intonation groups or tone units—on the basis, notably, of syntax and punctuation—and its stress pattern.10 The briefest possible summary of this complex area is that strong rhythmicity is most likely to arise in a line (or part-line) that forms a single intonation group when read aloud, and that contains three or more main stresses, all of which are separated by one or two unstressed or secondarily-stressed syllables. These are the passages that are most likely, in the terms of Whitman’s analogy, to give rise to the “larger waves on the sea-shore.”

10The theory behind Whitman’s rhythms could, of course, be dealt with at considerable length, but it is his practice that counts – a practice that can only be grasped by reading, scanning and discussing individual poems. The discussion that follows considers three. It begins with analysis of the short poem that opens Leaves of Grass, “One’s-Self I Sing,” which includes instances of several of Whitman’s favoured prosodic techniques. It moves on to a discussion of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” which is widely considered one of Whitman’s greatest achievements as regards poetic form. Finally, consideration is given to a later, less reputed work, “Song of the Universal,” in which the poet’s rhythms are perhaps more interesting than his argument. These three poems are only a small sample of Whitman’s massive poetic production, but, between them, they offer a range of important insights into his rhythms, and into his prosody more generally.

Strong vs. weak rhythmicity: “One’s-Self I Sing”

11“One’s-Self I Sing” (LG, p. 3) is, in prosodic terms, deceptively complex. It exemplifies some of the performance choices that any reader of Leaves of Grass will have to make, as well as the diverse rhythmic experiences that different lines within a single poem can offer:

One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

12The first line is strongly rhythmic: it can be read as a five-beat sequence:

13As above, stresses are marked with a slash, non-stresses with a cross; the back-slash (\) denotes syllables with secondary or subordinate stress. Syllables that are associated with beats are marked by underlining the scansion mark. It will be noted that there are six stresses in the line, but only five beats. This is because a speaker who taps a sequence of strong pulses here will, once s/ he has become familiar with the line as a whole, almost certainly begin on “self,” not “one’s.” There are three main explanations for this—one phonological, one metrical, and one aesthetic. Phonologically, the stress on “One’s” is subordinate to the stress on “Self,” which the reader, and listener, will judge more prominent, and thus a better candidate from which to construct a rhythmic sequence. Metrically, it is common in metrical poetry for a stressed syllable not to attract a beat when it is the first syllable in a line, and when it is immediately followed by another stress. The following, very well-known line is one among thousands of possible illustrations of this principle: it contains five stresses, but gives rise to only four beats:


14Finally, speakers are also guided by aesthetic considerations. A reader of Whitman’s line who wished to associate a beat with the syllable “One’s” would need either to lengthen that syllable, or to pause just after it, in order to permit the interval between the prominences on “One’s” and “Self” to be roughly as long as that between the prominences on “Self” and “Sing.” This lengthening or pause would almost certainly be experienced as undesirably awkward and unnatural.

15The second line of “One’s-Self ISing”— “Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse”—is also likely to be experienced as a five-beat sequence. Although the sentence in which it consists is divided mid-line by a comma, the material after the comma is, via ellipsis, grammatically bound to what precedes it, so that the intonational coherence of the line as a whole is preserved. Although the line’s stress pattern is more complex than that of l. 1, it is nonetheless characterized by a strong alternating pattern, in which syllables carrying main stress are separated by either one or two unstressed or secondarily-stressed syllables:

16This alternating pattern permits a sequence of beats to be experienced.

17Having encountered two five-beat lines, the reader is likely, at this stage in the poem, to hypothesize that s/he is in the presence of a loose five-beat meter, and to project this expectation forward into subsequent lines. The third line, however, provides a challenge to this expectation. It places readers, probably for the first time, in a situation of doubt as to the most appropriate performance. The line’s second half is clear enough; “from top to toe I sing” is the most regular alternation so far of stresses and non-stresses:

18The challenge comes with “physiology.” How many audible prominences are readers to give it, and how should they time it? If a reader gives prominence both to the secondary stress on “phys–” and the full vowel of “-gy,” and if s/he times the word in an even manner, s/he will find himself/herself uttering a six-beat metrical line:

19As such, the line would defeat our expectation of a five-beat meter, but still satisfy our more general expectation of metricality. However, we might find this way of pronouncing “physiology” rather unnatural—too sing-song, too attuned to rhythm rather than to natural expression. We may also find that it risks deadening in advance the contrast that l. 4 promises us between physiology on the one hand, and physiognomy on the other. If such considerations matter more to a reader than does the pull of metricality, then s/he will probably choose to read the line differently, with a strong accent on “-ol–” and none on “-ly.” A slight pause and intonation-group boundary (marked with a bar, |) after “physiology” will facilitate understanding of the sentence’s inverted syntax:

20A reader who utters the words “Of physiology” in this manner is leaving the realm of meter, albeit briefly. Performance choice in such a line ultimately depends on the reader: there is no right solution. Nonetheless, it is important to be aware that the poem is offering readers this choice, and is thereby creating a first crack in its hitherto metrical edifice.

21In the fourth line, the crack begins to gape:

Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far,

22This line is much too long, and contains too strong a syntactic division, to function as a single intonational and rhythmic sequence. The reader will therefore need to break it down, considering each of its two main clauses in turn. The first has thirteen syllables, many of which can be stressed. A reader who so chooses can force it into a seven-beat pattern, but this will force him or her to rush through the two long runs of unstressed syllables near the start of the line:

23To have two triple offbeats (xxx) in a row is very unusual in poetic meter, and sounds awkward. Moreover, by skipping over the syllables in this way, the reader loses touch with the poised, didactic syntax of the line, which carefully weighs up two possibilities— “physiognomy alone” and “brain alone”—before rejecting both. To do justice to this rhetorical precision, readers are likely to break the sequence down, intonationally, into something much closer to oratory, or to persuasive conversation, than to metrical verse:

24A reader who performs the line in this way is, in effect, rejecting a metrical basis for poetic form in favour of an intonational one. Instead of looking to create strong rhythmicity out of stress patterns, the author of such a performance downplays rhythmicity in favour of the intonational shapes and contours that can be built out of syntax and meaning. This is a radically different basis for poetic form from that found in conventional, metrical verse.

25The rest of the poem can be dealt with more briefly. The second part of line 4, like the second part of l. 3, is more regular than what has preceded it; if the words “I say” seem suspended outside the meter, an anacrusis, the sequence “the Form complete is worthier far” gives rise to a simple four-beat pattern:

26The fifth line (“The Female equally with the Male I sing”) offers readers choices similar to those already seen in l. 3 and l. 4: strong or weak rhythmicity? Rhythm-based form or intonation-based form? The line can be read with strong rhythmicity, via a return to the five-beat of l. 1:

27Or it can be uttered with an oratorical weak rhythmicity, in which pauses and intonation-group boundaries favour emphasis on the substance of the point being made:

28The reader who utters the line in this way is, once again, preferring intonation to rhythm as a basis for form.

29As for the final stanza, the lines all have a regular stress pattern and relatively smooth syntax. In consequence, all are likely to be perceived as strongly rhythmic—as five-beat, seven-beat and three-beat lines in turn.

30This last line, as so often in Whitman, is designed to be particularly striking. Both the shortest and the strictest in the poem, it is likely to be identified as a regular iambic trimeter by readers familiar with metrical poetry and foot-scansion.

  • 12 S. Bradley, “The Fundamental Metrical Principle in Whitman’s Poetry,” p. 442 ff.

31What should be retained from this discussion of how we read, and how we scan, Whitman’s poem? Firstly, that it is important to be alert to Whitman’s tendency to use strong rhythms, to enable beat induction to function, but that it would be unwise to expect meter in every line. Some critics, most notably Sculley Bradley, have argued that Whitman’s lines are all in a form of accentual meter.12 However, given the variety and irregularity of Whitman’s stress patterns, and his frequently discontinuous syntax, it may be conjectured that such a position is only likely to be adopted by readers whose metrical expectations or preferences are so strong that they will find (or construct) meter even in highly unpromising material. Instead of looking, like Bradley, for a single “fundamental metrical principle” in Whitman’s poetry, readers should be alert to the fact that this poetry throws up a variety of formal and performative possibilities, between which it will be necessary to choose. Reading a free-verse poem aloud, and constructing its rhythm thereby, always involves a negotiation, a mediation, between different linguistic and psychological elements. In “One’s-Self ISing,” for example, the most important area of negotiation is between two conflicting pressures: on the one hand, to satisfy the rhythmic expectations born of our familiarity with metrical verse; on the other, to preserve naturalness of intonation.

32A second lesson is that, whatever Whitman’s detractors may have said about his rhythm, the prosody of a poem like “One’s-Self ISing” is far from being chaotic. Following Whitman’s organic principles, the poem follows no fixed rule, and its form varies according to the needs of expression, yet it nonetheless exhibits patterning: after a fairly regular beginning, it displays increasing irregularity, before reverting to strong and unambiguous rhythms in the final stanza. The poetic voice in this poem thus benefits from a greater degree of rhythmic freedom than is typical in poetry of the 1860s, yet also remains concerned with pattern, and will not take the reader so far beyond his or her habits that pattern is lost sight of altogether. In purely dynamic terms, the poem gets readers lost, but then brings them home – or something like home—again. Finally, and connecting the formal to the political, it is worth considering the implications for readers of the obligation that is repeatedly placed upon them to choose between ad hoc, non-metrical form on the one hand, and a strong rhythm that recalls the communal norms of meter on the other. By leading readers to such choices, the poem offers a specific mode of experience of language, one that is based in exploration and negotiation. This mode of experiencing language may be seen as a rhythmic analogue of the broader explorations, and the creative uncertainties, that underpin Leaves of Grass.

  • 13 A. Finch, The Ghost of Meter, p. 42-50.
  • 14 Basil de Selincourt’s analysis of “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances” (LG, p. 103) relates the d (...)

33We can now define some of the main categories of rhythmic experience that Leaves of Grass offers us, in its fitful way. Firstly, there is what I have called strong rhythmicity: passages that give rise to the experience of beats. Secondly, a subcategory of strong rhythmicity is meter: that is, passages that recall recognisable and nameable meters from the canon of English verse, such as iambic trimeter. Thirdly, there are moments of weak rhythmicity, where beats are not apparent, and where our formal attention may, in certain circumstances, be directed to other aspects of the language’s sound, notably intonation. Fourthly, there are passages that offer readers a genuine choice between strong and weak rhythmicity. As we look through Whitman’s poems, these different categories are always in play, and it is useful, when analysing any given poem, to look at how it shifts between them, and at how these shifts may interact with the poem’s meaning. For example, the most regular lines are often at the poem’s beginning and end, where they serve the purpose of introduction and recapitulation; the process of getting readers lost and then bringing them home again is thus one that is repeated across many poems. Particular patterns may, moreover, take on particular associations. The poet and critic Annie Finch has written on Whitman’s pentameters, which for her are often associated with celebration of the self, statements of poetic intent, and, on occasions, moments at which the poet seeks to convey a sense of being stifled or constrained.13 Likewise, passages of weak rhythmicity have been associated with a sense of disarray or confusion.14

Patterned motifs: “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”

  • 15 The discussion of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” that follows builds on ideas found in poet- (...)

34Having looked in detail at a short poem, it is now necessary to consider how Whitman’s shifting, fitful rhythms operate in a longer work: “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (LG, p. 206-212) is constructed around sporadic bursts of strong rhythmicity. Some of these are so similar to each other, and so recurrent, that they function as rhythmic motifs.15 The poem’s rhythmic mode of operation is set in place during its opening lines, which are dominated by strong rhythms:

35The only passages that are analysed as weakly rhythmic in this scansion are “bareheaded, barefoot,” and “twining and twisting as if they were alive”: the dense stresses of the first, and the many unstressed syllables of the second, complicate the creation of a strong sense of alternating pattern. However, a reader who wishes to read these passages, too, with the kind of insistent rhythmicity that permits beats to arise even in the presence of irregularity will find it relatively easy to do so.

  • 16 As Paul Fussell noted long ago, this stress pattern constitutes, in the terms of foot-scansion, a d (...)

36Turning to the poem’s rhythmic motifs, the first of them, and the most important one, is the pattern which is present twice in succession in the poem’s title, and also, therefore, in its first line: /xx/x. This first occurrence of what can be called the title motif thus represents the realisation of a particular beat pattern (beat / double offbeat / beat / single offbeat) in a particular stress pattern (/xx/x).16 This beat pattern, and this stress pattern, will return on numerous occasions as the stanza proceeds. Most frequently, stress pattern and beat pattern are both recalled exactly, so that the title motif is reproduced identically: thus, the /_xx/_x sequence can be heard in “out of the mocking” and “musical shuttle” (both l. 2), “Out of the sterile” and “sands and the fields be- “(both l. 4), “Down from the shower’d” (l. 5), “Up from the mystic” (l. 6), and “Out from the patches” and “briars and blackber- “(both l. 7). On two occasions, the title motif’s beat pattern (beat / double offbeat / beat / single offbeat) is realized via a more complex stress pattern: /_x\/_x in “mocking-bird’s throat the” (l. 2) and /xx/_\ in “Out of the Nine-month” (l. 2). Finally, in “twining and twisting” (l. 6), the stress pattern /_xx/_x may, for the reasons of context discussed above, be dissociated from beats; yet it will still recall the title motif very powerfully.

  • 17 Fussell’s observations are worth reproducing in full: “The first four syllables of [l. 1 of “Out of (...)

37Within the opening lines of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” the title motif also exists in expanded and reduced forms. In its expanded form, the beat pattern of the motif is prolonged by a third beat, as in “out of the cradle end- “(l. 1), “mocking-bird’s throat, the mus- “(l. 2); “Out of the nine-month mid” (l. 3); “Over the sterile sands” (l. 4); “Down from the shower’d ha- “(l. 6) and “Out from the mystic play” (l. 7). In its reduced form, the motif is recalled minimally by the stress pattern /xx/, a pattern which Paul Fussell sees as typical of Whitman’s prosody, particularly his titles.17 Since it is a very common sequence of syllables in English, the temptation to attach significance to it on every occasion should be resisted. In this passage, it can be conjectured that only occurrences that either begin or end with a major syntactic boundary are likely to be experienced by readers and listeners as sufficiently salient to recall the title motif. There are two such examples in this passage (leaving aside those included in the longer instances of the motif), both in l. 4: “leaving his bed” and “wandered alone”

38The opening of the poem is thus both highly rhythmic, with beats being likely to be experienced in every line, and highly organized: via recurrences and echoes of a motif first encountered in its title, it imbues its evocation of origins with a powerful sense of rhythmicity and coherence. As the poem develops, its proportion of weakly rhythmic passages increases. For example, the irregular stress patterns and disjointed syntax of lines 41-45 mean that only the last of these lines is likely to be perceived as strongly rhythmic:

39With the exception of this closing trimeter, the passage constitutes an example of the association of weak rhythmicity with emotional confusion noted above.

40As for the poem’s title motif, if it is never again as all-pervasive as it is in l. 1-7, it nonetheless continues to play a major role in the poem. In its extended form, it is recalled occasionally as the poem proceeds: for example, via “Listen’d to keep, to sing” (l. 69), “Following you, my broth- “(l. 70), “What is that dusky spot” (l. 87), “Carols of lonesome love!” (l. 101) and “love in the heart long pent” (l. 137). The basic form returns with some insistence in the final lines of the poem’s penultimate stanza— “Hissing melodi–” (l. 170), “Creeping thence steadi–” “up to my ears and” and “laving me softly” (l. 172), “demon and brother” (l. 175). In the poem’s very last lines, the title motif appears twice in its basic form— “rocking the cradle” and “swathed in sweet garments” (both l. 182) — twice in extended form— “word of the sweetest song” (l. 180) and “strong and delicious word” (l. 181) —and three times in reduced form: “with them the key” and “up from the waves” (both l. 179) and “bending aside” (l. 182):

41The aim of this analysis is not, of course, to count the precise number of these different forms of the title motif, but to illustrate the fact that the title motif returns in such force, and so noticeably, at the poem’s end. It functions, rhythmically and thematically, as a strand in the “fus [ion]” of songs that is alluded to in l. 175 and described at length in the poem’s final lines. The return of the title motif plays a structural role, bringing a sense of return and closure. It also plays an important part in creating the sense that the boy’s experience is still present to the man, years and a poem later, and it emphasizes the importance of memory in that continuing presence. As l. 174 puts it:

42The line gives symbolic importance to the now-familiar rhythms of the title motif; the rhythms are an instance of the refusal to forget that the line asserts.

  • 18 W. Snodgrass, “The Rhythm That Rocks Walt’s Cradle,” p. 406-407.

43The title motif is not the only one at work in the poem. A second is what we might call the Tennyson motif: three successive stressed syllables forming a sequence of three beats, as in Tennyson’s famous poem “Break, break, break,” first published in 1842. This is a sequence that, as Snodgrass points out, Whitman used often—as in the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” (LG, p. 237) —and that he employs here repeatedly within the bird’s song18 : thus, “Blow! blow! blow!” (l. 52); “Soothe! soothe! soothe!” (l. 71), “Loud! loud! loud” (l. 81), plus variations, such as “Land! land! O land!” (l. 90), and “But soft! sink low!” (l. 105). Depending on how the poem’s final line, “The Sea whisper’d me” (l. 183) is read, the presence of the Tennyson motif may be felt there, too.

  • 19 W. Shakespeare, King Lear, R. A. Foakes (ed.), London, The Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 5.3.307.

44Looking beyond these motifs, it will be noted that “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” also contains several canonical metrical lines: that is, lines whose rhythms are so configured that the reader who is minimally familiar with the metrical tradition will not just experience them, but also recognise them. Examples are the iambic trimeter of l. 22, “A reminiscence sing,” and the iambic pentameter of l. 125, “O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!” (125). The poem also includes a significant proportion of lines which are strongly rhythmic, but which do not fall into a canonical accentual-syllabic meter: the opening lines are clearly of this kind, but the minimalist pair of five-beat lines that occur later in the poem are also remarkable: “Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!” (l. 127); “Death, death, death, death, death.” (l. 173). The two lines call to each other across the poem; they also evoke another famous and grief-stricken non-iambic five-beat line, Shakespeare’s “Never, never, never, never, never,” uttered by King Lear on the death of his daughter Cordelia; and in their reliance on consecutive stresses, they function as a reminder and a prolongation of the Tennyson motif.19 Here, as elsewhere in the poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” offers readers and listeners a complex and powerful intertwining of rhythmic motifs and variations. Together, these motifs construct the poem’s particular rhythmic character: its extraordinary and frequently-noted musicality, and the interaction of that formal development with the poem’s swirl of inquiry into memory, loss, and the poetic vocation.

Rhythm and rhetoric: “Song of the Universal”

  • 20 Quoted in Ronald W. Knapp, ““Song of the Universal”,” in J. LeMaster and D. Kummings (eds), Walt Wh (...)

45The third and last reading that this study will propose is of a poem that, unlike “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” is not usually considered a masterpiece. “Song of the Universal” (LG, p. 189-191) was first published in 1874, at a time when Whitman’s rhythms, like his thought, were taking comparatively orthodox directions. Richard Chase has remarked that, in “Song of the Universal,” “Whitman has given up poetry and become a speechmaker.”20 Yet the poem’s rhythms, particularly in its final two stanzas, repay close interest.

46In the penultimate stanza, the poet renews his expression of faith in the order and benevolence of the universe, and makes a direct appeal to God of the kind that is only found in his poetry of the 1870s and 1880s. The stanza is characterized by a blend of strong and weak rhythms:


47The first, fourth and fifth lines of this stanza are strongly rhythmic throughout, but the second and third will give rise only intermittently to the experience of beats, at the points where their stress pattern is most regular. Both of these lines appeal to contrasts and distinctions ( “Give me, give him or her…”; “whatever else withheld withhold not…”) in a manner that is superficially similar to the contrasts at work in “One’s-Self I Sing.” Unlike in that poem, however, these contrasts are not deployed within a rhetoric of careful evaluation, but one of accumulation and hyperbole. Likewise, whereas, in “One’s-Self I Sing,” the contrastive syntax arises at a point where meter falls away—indeed, it is a vehicle for the meter’s falling away, and for an intonation-based form to replace it—the reverse is true here. It is the moments of distinction and contrast that are characterized by a regular stress pattern, and so by the experience of beats. These formal choices thus add rhythmic insistence to the rather overblown rhetoric; it is easy to understand why such a stanza might be considered speechmaking more than poetry.

48Compare this to the final stanza:

  • 22 Dwight Bolinger, “Accent is Predictable (If You’re a Mind-Reader),” Language, 48, 1972, p. 633-644.

49This stanza is weakly rhythmic for the first two and a half lines, the second line being marked by a noticeably irregular stress pattern. Intonationally, the stanza is characterized by what the linguist Dwight Bolinger calls “deaccenting,” whereby nuclear accents are moved away from material that is repeated.22 The scansion reflects this: the first mention of “dream” is given a full prominence, but the three subsequent ones are downgraded; and no accents have been placed on any of the three occurrences of “it,” even though readers might be tempted to accent the second and third of them in order to regularize the rhythm. The dominant role played by deaccenting in these lines gives them a deflating effect, which combines with their high proportion of weak rhythmicity to make the final stanza feel far less triumphant than might be expected. Strong rhythmicity returns in the second half of the penultimate line (“lore and wealth a dream”), and the final line is, for the first time in the stanza, strongly rhythmic throughout: “And all the world a dream.” The poet offers us, therefore, a resounding rhythm—and a canonical meter, an iambic trimeter—on which to close. However, it comes very late: the move into deaccenting and weak rhythmicity has drained energy from the stanza, and what rings rhythmically in our memory as we finish the poem is not the stanza as a whole, which is a reaffirmation of faith, but its final few words, “And all the world a dream,” which, in isolation, suggests the hollowness of that faith. It is rather as if the poem as a whole were a dramatic monologue, an affirmation of faith spoken by a partly sceptical poet. The prosody of “Song of the Universal” ’s closing stanzas suggests that this performance of faith could not quite be kept up until the end.

50This essay has sought to illustrate both some of the principles and methods by which Whitman’s fitful rhythms may be investigated, and some of the light that these rhythms cast on the functioning of his poems as a whole. Within Leaves of Grass, the importance of rhythm, in the sense of the line-by-line or word-by-word operations of prominence and beat, should not be underestimated. Nor should the role played by intonation, which Whitman’s syntactic and semantic choices invite us to conceive of as a radical alternative basis for poetic form. The poet states in “From Pent-up Aching Rivers” that he is “Singing the true song of the soul fitful at random” (l. 14; LG, p. 79); yet though Whitman may be fitful, he is rarely random. As his poems move in and out of strong rhythmicity, they can offer powerful shapes, and powerful meanings, to the reader who gives them voice.


1 W. Whitman, “Preface – 1855,” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, p. 621-622.

2 Coleridge gave his definition of organic form during a lecture on Shakespeare: it “is innate, it […] shapes as it developes [sic] itself from within, and the fullness of its developement is one & the same with the perfection of its outward Form” (“1812-1813 Lectures on Belles-Lettres: Lecture 8,” The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 5: Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature, R.A. Foakes (ed.), 2 vols, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1987, vol. 1, p. 495). Coleridge’s definition paraphrases one found in August Schlegel’s Über dramatische Kunst und Literatur (On Dramatic Art and Literature, 1809-1811; see Charles Mahoney, “Coleridge and Shakespeare,” The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frederick Burwick (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 509-511). Related ideas are explored in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817), which Whitman reviewed in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1847. R.W. Emerson’s comments in “The Poet” on the “meter-making argument” that is “like the spirit of a plant or animal” (p. 450) are also, of course, germane.

3 W. Whitman, “Walt Whitman. The late Dartmouth College utterance of the above named celebrity...” The note’s context is described in Bliss Perry, Walt Whitman: His Life and Work, p. 205.

4 T. S. Eliot, “Reflections on ‘Vers Libre’,” (1917), Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, Frank Kermode (ed.), London, Faber, 1975, p. 34-35; Derek Attridge, The Rhythms of English Poetry, London, Longman, 1982, p. 321-324. Richard Cureton, in Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse, refers in passing to Whitman’s poetry as “sporadically metrical” (London, Longman, 1992, p. 83).

5 Gay Wilson Allen, Wilson, American Prosody, New York, Octagon (1935), 1978, chap. 8, “Walt Whitman”; J. Perrin Warren, “‘The Free Growth of Metrical Laws’: Syntactic Parallelism in ‘Song of Myself’.” See also P. Jannacone’s pioneering Walt Whitman’s Poetry and the Evolution of Rhythmic Forms.

6 For foot-based discussion of aspects of Whitman’s poetry, see, e. g., A. Finch, The Ghost of Meter, chap. 3. For Whitman’s own explorations of foot-scansion, see J. Phelan, The Music of Verse: Metrical Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Poetry, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 161. For critical comment on foot-scansion and free verse, see R. Cureton, Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse, op. cit., p. 21.

7 Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 9.

8 These scansion marks are taken from D. Attridge, Poetic Rhythm. They are better suited to free verse than are those used in Attridge’s other works. The use of a fixed-width font such as Courier permits the scansion marks to be placed in exactly the right positions.

9 Such simple mappings of stress pattern onto beat pattern facilitate foot-scansion, which has no consistent way of distinguishing between them. A foot-based reading would classify this line as a trimeter composed of dactylic and trochaic feet.

10 On intonation groups in poetry, see Lacy Rumsey, “‘Da-DA-da-da-da’: Intonation and Poetic Form,” Thinking Verse, 5, 2015, p. 15-49 (p. 23-27) (

11 Robert Burns, “Auld Lang Syne,” l. 1. The Canongate Burns: The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg (eds), Edinburgh, Canongate, 2001, p. 701.

12 S. Bradley, “The Fundamental Metrical Principle in Whitman’s Poetry,” p. 442 ff.

13 A. Finch, The Ghost of Meter, p. 42-50.

14 Basil de Selincourt’s analysis of “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances” (LG, p. 103) relates the disorder of that poem’s ninth line (which he describes as “a heap of stumbling contraries”) to the “commotion of feeling” that it seeks to express. Walt Whitman: A Critical Study, p. 92.

15 The discussion of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” that follows builds on ideas found in poet-critic W. D. Snodgrass’s analysis of the poem’s use of rhythmic motifs. W. Snodgrass, “The Rhythm that Rocks Walt’s Cradle,” p. 404-409.

16 As Paul Fussell noted long ago, this stress pattern constitutes, in the terms of foot-scansion, a dactyl followed by a trochee. P. Fussell, “Whitman’s Curious Warble,” p. 33.

17 Fussell’s observations are worth reproducing in full: “The first four syllables of [l. 1 of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”] create a cadence (resembling the classical choriambus) which is one of the most frequent in Whitman’s poems, and to which he is so devoted that it almost becomes the metrical hallmark of the standard Whitman title, even in his prose: it is the pattern we hear behind “Song of Myself” and Specimen Days; and behind the first four syllables of “Song of the Open Road,” “Passage to India,” “Notes of a Half-Paralytic,” “Children of Adam,” “Song of the Broad-Axe,” “Prayer of Columbus,” and “Whispers of Heavenly Death.”” P. Fussell, “Whitman’s Curious Warble,” p. 33-34.

18 W. Snodgrass, “The Rhythm That Rocks Walt’s Cradle,” p. 406-407.

19 W. Shakespeare, King Lear, R. A. Foakes (ed.), London, The Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 5.3.307.

20 Quoted in Ronald W. Knapp, ““Song of the Universal”,” in J. LeMaster and D. Kummings (eds), Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, p. 666-667 (p. 667).

21 The [x] symbol denotes a virtual offbeat, an offbeat that is associated, not with a syllable, but with a break in the movement of the line. See D. Attridge, Poetic Rhythm, p. 68.

22 Dwight Bolinger, “Accent is Predictable (If You’re a Mind-Reader),” Language, 48, 1972, p. 633-644.

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Maître de conférences en poésie américaine et britannique à l’École normale supérieure de Lyon. Il a publié de nombreux articles sur les aspects formels de la poésie de langue anglaise, et notamment sur la prosodie. Parmi ses publications récentes figurent « Da-DA-da-da-da : Intonation and Poetic Form » (Thinking Verse 5, 2015) ; « Revisiting the American “walk poem” : A. R. Ammons, Charles Olson, and Jonathan Williams », in K. Benesch et F. Specq (éd.), Pedestrian Mobility in Literature, Philosophy, and the Arts (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) ; « The Reader, the Text and the Metre » in A. Goarzin et C. Ní Ríordáin (éd.), Memoranda to MacNeice : New Readings (PUR, 2019) ; « Free Verse and Open Form », in D. Malcolm and W. Görtschacher (éd.), A Companion to British and Irish Poetry 1960-2015 (Wiley-Blackwell, à paraître en 2019). Il prépare une monographie sur la prosodie du vers libre.

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