Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d"
President Abraham Lincoln
Walt Whitman was deeply affected by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. The poet's admiration for the president is dramatized in his elegy as it emphasizes three symbols: a lilac, a star, and a bird.
In Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d," the speaker laments the death of President Lincoln, but he does so much more than merely offer his sad and melancholy state of mind. This speaker creates a sacred myth through which he not only offer a tribute to the fallen president but also creates a symbolic triad that will henceforth bring the mind the momentous event.
The speaker also composes a "Death Carol," in which rests the irony of elevating death from the lamination it usually brings to a celebrated friend whom all suffering humanity can afford the fealty of welcome.
First Movement 1-6: "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d"
The speaker begins by setting the time frame in spring when lilacs bloom. He is in mourning and suggests that we will continue mourn this time of year, when three events continue to come together: the lilacs bloom, the star Venus appears, and the speaker's thoughts of the president he venerated occur.
The lilacs and the star of Venus immediately become symbolic of the speaker's feelings and the momentous event that has engendered them.
In the second section of the first movement, the speaker offers a set of keening laments prefaced by "O"; for example,
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
Each keen grows more intense as it progresses to the final, " O hard surrounding cloud that will not free my soul." He picks a sprig of lilac whose leaves are heart-shaped. This act indicates that the lilac will henceforth become symbolic for the speaker; the lilac will symbolize the love the speaker bears for the fallen president.
The speaker then introduces the singing hermit thrush whose song will elevate the bird to symbolic significance for the speaker, as well as the lilacs and star.
In the final two sections of the first movement, the speaker describes the landscape through which President Lincoln's casketed body moved to its final resting place in Illinois.
Second Movement 7: "(Nor for you, for one alone"
The second movement consists of a parenthetical offering of flowers to the casketed corpse of the president but also suggests that the speaker would overlay the coffins of all the war dead with roses and lilies, "But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first."
Again the suggestion that the lilac will remain a symbol because it is the first flower to bloom every spring. While showering the coffins of the fallen, the speaker says he will "chant a song for you O sane and sacred death."
Third Movement 8-9: "O western orb sailing the heaven"
The speaker now confronts the "western orb" that star of Venus that he had observed a month earlier. He imagines that the symbolic star had been speaking to him of the tragic events to come.
The star seemed to drop to the speaker's side as the other stars watched. The speaker felt a sadness as the star "drops in the night, and was gone." Now that the month has passed and the speaker feels that he was being forewarned by the symbolic star.
The speaker says that the "star of my departing comrade hold and detains me," as he addresses the "singer bashful and tender," that is, the hermit thrush who sings his solitary song from the covering of leaves.
Fourth Movement 10-13: "O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?"
The speaker now muses on how he will be able to "warble . . . for the dead one there I loved." He continues to lament but knows he must compose a "song for the large sweet soul that has gone."
The speaker then considers what he will "hang on the chamber walls," indicating he will erect a personal shrine to the slain president. He offers a number of items that he feels must decorate that shrine, as he catalogues them; for example, "Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes."
The famous Whitman catalogue finds its way into several movements of this elegy. As it is the president of the country who has died, the speaker places scenes from the country in his elegy:
Lo, body and soul—this land,
My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships,
The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light, Ohio’s shores and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies cover’d with grass and corn.
The speaker then commands the bird to sing as he prepares to offer a "Death Carol" in the next movement.
Fifth Movement 14: "Now while I sat in the day and look’d forth"
The speaker creates a moving tribute to the president by replacing the sorrow of death with the dignity and necessity of death. Death becomes a friend who gives respite to the weary body.
The speaker prefaces his "Death Carol" with a scene of himself walking between two friends: "knowledge of death" walked on one side of the speaker, and the "thought of death" occupied the other.
The "Death Carol" virtually lovingly addresses death, inviting it to "come lovely and soothing death." He welcomes death to "undulate round the world." He has almost fully accepted that death comes "in the day, in the night, to all, to each, / Sooner or later."
The speaker's lament has transformed death from a dreaded event to a sacred, sweet one to which he will float a song full of joy.
Sixth Movement 15-16: "To the tally of my soul"
The speaker credits the bird with the composition of the "Death Carol." This indicates that the speaker had become so closely in tune with the warbling bird that he cognizes a hymn from the singing.
The speaker then catalogues scenes that he had actually witnessed as he traveled the battlefields of the war during which time he had nursed the wounded and dying. He saw "battle-corpses, myriads of them."
But he finally realizes something vital to the awareness of the reality of death: ". . . I saw they were not as was thought, / They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not." The speaker realized that it is the living who suffer the death of the deceased and not the deceased, who remained, "fully at rest."
The speaker's parting words offer his summation of the entwined images that now have become and will retain their symbolic significance for the speaker: "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."
Reading of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d"
The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman
The collection includes the elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes