The poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is an elegy on the death of Abrahan Lincoln. President Lincoln was assassinated by an actor, John Wilkes Booth, who shot and fatally injured him. The president died the following morning. Walt Whitman wrote the poem shortly after the assassination expressing grief. Whitman had for long well-regarded and spoke highly of the president. It is also noted that he had attended Lincoln's second inauguration just weeks before the assassination. Moreover, in an 1863 letter, Whitman writes, "I believe fully in the president, few know the rocks and quicksands he has to get through" (Schwiebert, 121). Whitman intensely admired the president and had previous works praising Abraham Lincoln
The author not only uses the poem to grief the death of Abraham Lincoln but also to expound on the subject of death itself. The poem consists of sixteen sections. The initial parts of the poem follow the journey of loved one's coffin on its way to the resting place, another section sticks with the speaker and his sprig of lilac which is to be placed on the coffin and the last sections uses the symbol of a thrush and a western star to cultivate an impression of nature which though considerate is separate from humanity.
In the first sections, 1-4, of the poem presents the setting which is depicted by the return f spring and the blossoming lilacs as well as the near dropping of the western sky. The author mourns the death of the one he loved and who now is covered by "black murk" (9). The author observes a lilac bush. The lilac's purple color depicts the color of the Crucifixion which suggests the violent death of the Lincoln. The repetition of the phrase, "ever returning spring" shows the trigger that revives the speaker's grief over the loss of his loved one.
The poem's second cycle, between section 5 to 9, follows the progress of the coffin through the rural and industrialized background of the country. The section also pictures the whole society mourning its loss and acknowledging the presence of death. The lilac introduced in the first sections is offered by the speaker as his last respect. The author brings the blossoming lilacs not only for Lincoln but also for all men, by stating "Nor for you, for one alone, Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring" (46, 47). By omitting the Lincoln in the elegy, other heroes and victims of war are accommodated in the elegy.
The poem's third cycle, section 10-13, the speaker is occupied with Lincoln. The speaker wonders how he will sing of the departed loved one. He wonders how he shall compose a tribute for him. In the tenth stanza, the speaker is in a predicament beyond that of mourning for Lincoln and is also challenged with mourning for other Americans who have died. He thus cannot simply perfume or decorate the grave with the personal symbol of lilac. The twelve stanzas have some mourning celebration characteristic of elegies. The section does not fulfill the purpose of where the coffin is destined. The omission of the burial scene justifies the cyclical and recurring state of individual and national mourning (Schwiebert, 121). The author goes back to describe the mourning noting that the herds and the flocks have been left without a figure. In this section, the portrayal of natural objects and wonders indicate the scope of Lincoln's imagination.
Section 14-16 restates the previous themes of the poem and an element of immortality. The speaker recalls of a day he sat in the nonviolent but "unconscious scenery of my land" when a cloud with a "long black trail" emerged and encircled everything (134). The author concludes that from the event he learned of the death. Moving forward, he strolled in the "knowledge of death" and "thought of death" (135). The speaker then escaped to the bird that sang "the carol song" (144). After this passage, the song of the thrush follows. The song compliments death by describing it as lovely, delicate and soothing. The unfathomable world is adored for "life and joy" as well as "sweet love." The speaker describes death as "a dark mother always gliding near with soft feet" and to whom birds sing a song of "fullest welcome" (146). The author further notes that death is a strong deliverer to whom the figure readily and thankfully settles. The thrush's song is spiritual in that from the bird's song, the author sees visions. He sees armies, battle-corpses, and dead soldiers. The author notes that the dead soldiers were happy in their relaxing places, but their close relative and friends continued to the grief of their loss. He thus concludes that the grief is not for the dead but the living. This assertion is seen as the speaker's consolation that he needs not to grief because the dead are happy wherever they are. The section describes the coffin reaching its end.
The coffin goes through the visions, the "song of the hermit bird" as well as the "tallying song" of the poet's soul. The speakers note that he can hear the "Death's outlet song," "sinking and fainting" and the bursting with joy (165). The earth and heaven are described as filled with a joyful psalm. The author salutes the coffin as it passes him. The passing reminds him that lilac blossoming in the dooryard will revive every spring. The coffin reaches its end in the "fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim" (171). The star, the lilac and the bird join the poet in bidding farewell to the departed, Lincoln his friend whom he loved very much.
The poem has used different literary style to achieve pass its message in the elegy. Three major symbols used are the lilac, star, and thrush. The lilac and the western star are placed in the dramatic events of the poem so that the poet can manipulate them as signs of grief (Schwiebert, 127). The lilac flower symbolizes the eternal memory of Lincoln whose blossoming would forever remind the poet of him. The heart-shaped leaves of the lilac represent the speaker's love for the departed and are fresh and unfading. The star is a symbol of agony and end. The star reminds the poet of the death of Lincoln. The Hermit thrush is a shy bird that can only sing "death's outlet songs" are representative of rebirth whose voice is spiritual.
Several themes have been used in the poem. The poet's emotional conflict from the loss of a loved one and the final realization of immortality is a theme. Immortality is symbolic in dramatizing the poet's reconciliation with the reality of life and death as a must (Adams, 479). The theme of death also features with the author acknowledgment of death and life being intermixed and are part of the same reality as well as the same cyclic reality. To Whitman, death is a period of transition and not an end in life. The cycles of life and death as illustrated by the death of flowers in winter and re-blooming in summer contextualize the reality of life. Moreover, linking the death to life in the poem gave meaning to the death of so many soldiers. The poem also has features of repetition where words or group of words are repeated in successive phrases or clauses in a style called anaphora. The style aims at achieving rhythm and to expand an idea.
The poem has successfully achieved its intention as an elegy. Whitman held Lincoln in high esteem, and it thus follows the poem mourned for him. Though the poem does not mention Lincoln by name, it has gone ahead and recognized the efforts of fallen soldiers in the Civil War that had just been concluded before the assassination of the president. The symbolic use of the lilac is well informed as most American have seen the flower. The author following the coffin through the cities and countryside captures the emotion and grief that had engulfed the country at the time. The country had emerged from a civil, and most people had lost relatives in the war, the idea that people were grieving Lincoln instead of family members is ironical. However, the failure to mention Lincoln captures the efforts of all men who were now dead.
Adams, R. P. "Whitman's "Lilacs" and the Tradition of Pastoral Elegy." PMLA, vol. 72, no. 3, 1957, p. 479, doi:10.2307/460469.
Schwiebert, J. E. "A Delicate Balance: Whitman's Stanzaic Poems." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 7, no. 3, 1990, pp. 116-130, doi:10.13008/2153-3695.1250.
Whitman, Walt. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Shorter 8th ed. Eds. Nina Baym, et al. New York: Norton, 2013.
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