Death, remembrance and grief in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is one of Walt Whitman’s most beautifully written poems. He writes this poem in remembrance of President Lincoln, discussing death, grief, and recovering from such a tragedy. The poem moves in cycles as it unfolds, beginning with an overview of death and ending with Lincoln’s coffin finishing its journey. As Whitman writes, he puts focus on three main symbols that evolve throughout the poem: Lilacs, stars, and birds. Each of these symbols have purpose throughout the poem and grow to help readers understand what Whitman is going through.

Lilacs, as suggested at the beginning of the poem and by the title of the poem, hold a special purpose throughout the poem. The beginning lines of the poem say, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d/ And the great star early droop’s in the western sky in the/ night/ I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring” (459). Lilacs here are represented as something that withstands, and with continue to withstand with every passing spring. In this sense, lilacs are representing the remembrance that Whitman will always hold regarding President Lincoln. Whitman writes, “Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring/ Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west/ And thought of him I love” (459). Phrases like “Ever-returning spring” and “lilac blooming perennial” serve to portray how lasting and effective his remembrance for President Lincoln will always be.

Similarly, stars have a specific purpose in this poem as well. As stated earlier, the beginning lines of the poem state, “And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the/ night” (459). The star, in this sense, is President Lincoln himself. Whitman writes, “O powerful western fallen star/ O shade of night – O moody, tearful night/ O great star disappear’d – O the black murk that hides the star” (459). Phrases like “The great star early droop’d” and “O great star disappeared” show Whitman’s thoughts on the death of President Lincoln – not only was he a great man, but he was gone too early. Whitman writes, “But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain’d me/ The star my departing comrade holds and detains me” (462). It is obvious that Whitman was affected by the death of President Lincoln, in fact it is detaining him. The star, or President Lincoln, is causing Whitman to try and figure out the power and influence of death.

Another prevalent symbol in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is the bird. Whitman writes, “In the swamp in secluded recesses/ A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song” (459). Throughout the poem, I read the bird as something that is helping Whitman come to terms with the idea of death and the passing of President Lincoln. The bird sings, “The night in silence under many a star/ The oceans shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know/ And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death/ And the body gratefully nestling close to thee” (465). The bird is signing and exploring the idea of death, helping Whitman, and readers, come to terms with it. Instead of portraying death as something merely scary, the bird portrays death as something almost joyous. He sing, “I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death” (465).

Whitman closes the poem writing, “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 fragment pines and the cedars dusk and dim” (467). Whitman joins these powerful forces – lilacs, stars and singing birds – together at the end to explain their purpose. He used these symbols as a way to eulogize his friend and offer a way to remember him forever. Whitman utilizes the use of things many readers know, like stars for instance, to emphasize what he wants to convey in his work. We know that stars are ever-lasting; we know that lilacs return in the spring; we don’t know that birds sing, but we know that death is a tricky thing to navigate. He utilizes our knowledge and expands on it, giving us a beautiful poem about death, remembrance and grief.



One Response to Death, remembrance and grief in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

  1. Elie September 11, 2019 at 1:30 am #

    I really appreciated the close reading that you did for this poem, I think it captures the intention really well. The eulogistic style of the poem was interesting to me as death is not an uncovered topic by Whitman especially in his poems during and after the civil war. What I think is compelling is Whitmans patterns of attempting to explain death or give meaning to death rather than succumb to it and produce depressing poems about the gloom. I think it shows how Whitman was a really hopeful person. In poems like Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice he is hopeful about the end of the war and the rebuilding of the nation. Similarly in the other works where he grapples with death he is hopeful that death and decay often bring about life in a new and exciting way. There is a sweetness to this type of hope that Whitman projects because, as you said, he is not only doing this for himself or for Lincoln, but for an entire nation that is grieving for their lost leader and for their brethren who most likely perished in the war. Its all very personal and Whitman understands that.

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