My Selection — “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is one of the most famous pastoral elegies for a reason.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
It’s a free verse poem of 206 lines, published in 1865. It was the same year as the close of the Civil War and the death and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The lilacs are blooming. It’s April. And President Lincoln dies, after being shot in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC — which was really, let’s face it — situated in enemy territory. Remember that Frederick Douglass was a slave in Maryland — Easton on the Eastern Shore and then in Baltimore, even further north than DC.
So what more appropriate flower for Whitman than the lilac? The lilac is fragrant and aromatic. As soon as I leave the house, the love-scented odor attacks my nose. I love my lilacs — one of the drama queens of the garden — along with roses because they need so much attention. I have lilacs on both sides of the house — the North facing and South facing — but civilly.
In Section 3, Whitman vividly creates a picture of the lilacs:
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle — and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.
Lilacs have heart-shaped leaves. Very beautiful and symbolic. The lilac is not accidental or just some flower Whitman selected from a “book of flowers.” The lilacs bloom in a variety of colors, but the typical color is purple. That’s the first dominant symbol in the poem: lilacs blooming by the dooryard.
Before we go into in-depth with this amazing poem — this great elegy — a serious poem of reflection and a lament for the dead — think about this. Let’s step back for a second and imagine someone you have loved dearly has just died. It could be your mother. Your best friend. A cousin who died of a drug overdose. A grandmother — or any sudden death — like an assassination.
Or it could be something that you are coming to grips with over a long time, like seeing your grandfather, year after year, month after month, week after week, you know, slip into oblivion or slip into death.
How do you cope with someone not being in there anymore? Not being a part of your life — as if someone has robbed you of an organ? If you think of yourselves as Simba, right, from Lion King and you’re used to your dad always being there, suddenly he’s murdered or it’s an accident, and he falls in the canyon and dies.
Now you are the adult, now — the mother is gone now you need to step up as the father, as the mother, as the leader — and take that role you might not be able to take. How do you deal with grief? How do you cope with that loss?
Many turn to the comforts of religion. Sometimes it takes our faith to catch up to our grief. So what Whitman does here — he turns to poetry. Oftentimes in moments of grief, we turn to poetry — like after the tragedy of 9/11. There was so much poetry written then directly after the event.
There's a great poem from The New Yorker called “The Disappearances” by Vijay Seshadri who won the Pulitzer for poetry for his collection “3 Sections.” All of the sudden, all these people just disappeared — vaporized. How do we cope with this? How do we cope with this tragedy? Oftentimes we deny it — I can’t believe this has happened. You seclude yourself like the bird the thrush — the poet — you — the mourner — go into your room and shut the door. No one can bug you.
In Whitman’s poem, the solitary thrush — the bird — is singing “death’s outlet song.” It’s the song of “the bleeding throat.” Think about how much he would cry — how much he would need to sing — that would make your throat bleed, right? That’s hyperbole — but it’s such a wonderful and terrible image of grief to show how much Whitman loved Abraham Lincoln — the savior and the hero of The United States.
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)
When a family member dies or a close relative dies or your friend dies you might be called upon to do an elegy or eulogy, right? You are the one speaking at the funeral — at the mass — at the gravesite — at the ceremony — whatever they have. Or it could be just some work you write in your journal — or the words in your head as your pray.
But such feelings — the words — help you deal with the grief of this loss, right? We all know we’re going to die. We all know that, right, what one philosopher said that “if we die every day in our thoughts, we will never fear death.”
Saint Augustine famously said about Jesus that he went to the cross as a bridegroom goes to his bride. That seems extreme, but the idea that death is startling and suddenly they’re there — and then — like this! Snap —! They’re not — so there’s this idea of stages of grief. I’m not sure psychologists even call it “stages of grief” anymore, but we see the stages of grief in this elegy.
We have Abraham Lincoln as the western star. He is the guiding light. It’s a gaudy white — fixed in the heavens — and Whitman, the bird, and the lilac — some symbolic Holy Trinity — are all connected to nature and God and Lincoln:
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands — and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
So Whitman uses personification — placing human feelings in the thrush. In an apostrophe — addressing someone who is not present — he’s addressing Lincoln:
What we see in the various sections of the poem, of course, are these various stages. He breaks off one stick of lilac — and you smell it — and oh — that reminds me of this time of year — and I think of Abraham Lincoln and Whitman. The smell — the olfactory senses have a direct connection to memory — perhaps more than any other sense. It’s like Marcel Proust and The Remembrance of Things Past when he eats Madeleine cake — and suddenly — it brings him back — to our grandmother’s kitchen. Smells can bring us back to middle school — that same cleaning agent has not left the carpets.
There’s the private grief and then there’s the public grief: the funeral train that went from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois:
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
And that was a national day of mourning, at least in the North, and everyone was looking at everyone — and of course, obviously, Lincoln had his haters. “Death to tyrants!” Booth said as he shot Lincoln.
His brother, by the way, was a very famous actor — one of the most famous actors in New York. His younger brother, also a minor actor, of course, was the infamous John Wilkes Booth.
But it was the public procession — people in black paying homage — paying respects. And, of course, Whitman, no longer has just one twig of lilac. His arms are full of love and lilacs — he just wants to keep on to Lincoln’s coffin — and outpouring of love.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)
Then, of course, people have to go back to work. After the funeral, you’re still sad. It’s been so much energy — so much adrenaline — and perhaps you have too busy with the funeral arrangements and company and the food and the expense — and you have not had time to properly and quietly mourn.
You may still be in a state of denial — as if this loved one will still knock on the door. You want to call them up, but you address the sky like Simba — you speak to God — you write in your journal — but then life moves on. Work demands. The demands of children and bills and life.
And that’s what happens to America: it gets back to work after the bloody Civil War claimed the deaths of 3% of the population. Ironically, all across America, the fields are blooming — the wheat. It’s spring. People are going back to work. The ships in the harbor. New York City and the wheels of American Capitalism start spinning again — life moves on:
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,
And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.
Whitman or the thrush, really, can’t move on. Everything’s moving on — people are getting on with their lives — but Whitman is struggling — the bird is struggling. Then Whitman goes into this beautiful meditation of death in italics. It breaks up the narrative — the story:
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Death, after all, is not necessarily an awful thing. In fact, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s part of the natural cycle of life. You can’t have one without the other, right? As soon as I procreate, I’ve replaced myself. I’ve done my job. That’s why you never see a gazelle with arthritis. There is that lion. The natural world has ways of dealing with death — and the food cycle — and thank God with have doctors and medicine — but to nature — your job is done. It’s time for youth now to take over.
To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure deliberate notes spreading filling the night.
Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist and the swamp-perfume,
And I with my comrades there in the night.
So Whitman in the latter sections gets very spiritual. He sees death as an easeful, comfortable death. I’m not sure if he read Keats, but it’s like “Ode to a Nightingale” when Keats knows he was going to die of tuberculosis. How do you deal with death — especially when you know death is coming?
It’s a meditative and introspective — pure beauty. Not just the beauty and the love that he had of Abraham Lincoln and whose name is never mentioned, by the way. Does Lincoln’s name need to be mentioned? Isn’t it obvious?
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.
It’s pretty obvious but also how we deal with life knowing that we’re going to die, right? And all these powerful symbols come together at the end: cedars dim — that great reverse word order — and Whitman uses many of all these devices and take a look at my other video about the rhetorical devices that Whitman uses.
He’s brilliant, of course, but this is now more of, you know, let’s talk about what truly what really matters in this poem. How we can deal with our own loss — and meditate on our own future death by learning what Whitman has written in 1865 about life, about death, about love, and how do we honor those we have most loved when that person in your life does die.
You will have many people in your life die. How will you deal with that? You know how will you respect their memory — which is, I think, a very very important idea — this theme in the poem — and how should we treat them now — knowing that they’re going to die.
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.
They will not always be there, right? We expect them to be — like the Western Star — they will be there tomorrow — they’ll be there the next day, but you know, there’ll be one day when they won’t be.
And we’ll need to step up and carry one what they carried — democracy and freedom.
Hopefully, you can listen and read with a deeper appreciation of the poem. I have had students record in-class oral interpretations of the poem.
Take care. Happy reading, fans of literature!
Thank you for reading! Follow me on Medium at Walter Bowne.