This well-loved poem, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,’ is compared to acclaimed pastoral elegies such as John Milton‘s ‘Lycidas’ (1637) and Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s ‘Adonais‘ (1821) despite it missing out on a number of features of pastoral elegy.
Explore When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd
‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ following the death of Abraham Lincoln, comments on how the poet finds solace in the song (poem). The poem begins with the description of spring and blooming lilacs, which he thinks is a cycle that will remind him of his loved one. He picks a lilac to be offered to the coffin that has been moving around the city day and night. Further, the poet employed the “Lilac,” “bird,” and “drooping star” as recurrent symbols in the poem to deliberate on the impact of war and death, especially Abraham Lincoln’s. While concluding the poem, the poet/speaker seems to be more at peace with death than his woeful complaint in the beginning. He concludes with the note of death being an inevitable part that comes eventually to everyone like a mother who comes to ease of the child from all suffering.
You can read the full poem here.
‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ being an elegy has death as a major theme. The death of Abraham Lincoln and the impact of the Civil war is addressed by the poet, though not directly, the images and the symbols present in the poem, make it clear. It also deals with the persistence of life (life that goes on) in spite of the pains and sufferings. The images of “bustling cities,” “meals and minutia of daily usages,” “the sun,” “the stars,” and “the hermit bird” remind us of life’s continuance no matter what. As the seasons come and go, life on earth comes and goes.
Form and Structure
‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ is a long poem of 206 lines. It is written in the pastoral elegy form. Whitman has done a lot of revision to the poem from the time it was first published. In the final version, published in 1881, the poem is divided into sixteen sections with the length ranging from 5 or 6 lines to as many as 53 lines. The poem does not possess a consistent metrical pattern, and the length of each line varies from seven syllables to as many as twenty syllables.
Walt Whitman, well known for his rich use of symbolism in poetry to convey his thoughts, feelings, and emotions has employed three major symbols- the star, the lilac, and the bird. The symbols are interconnected, and recurrent though out the poem. Whitman has taken the symbols from the time of Lincoln’s death. The spring and Lilac are used to represent the cyclic nature of the season and the memory of Abraham Lincoln. The Western Star that appears in the evening marks the approaching night is used by the poet as a symbol to indicate the death of Abraham Lincoln the darkness followed. It also refers to Abraham Lincoln who was like a guiding star to the people of America during the Civil war. The hermit– thrush represents the voice of spirituality and the poet’s soul singing.
Analysis, Section by Section
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And thought of him I love.
In the first Section of ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d’ the poet introduces us the beauty of nature and the pain of death with the image of the “lilacs” and “drooping star in the west.” The word “last” refers to the last flower of the season. The poet mourns on the death of his loved one, here referring to “Abraham Lincoln.” He also says the loss is not temporary, for with each spring he will be reminded of this trinity: the lilac, the star, and the thought of the loved one lost.
O powerful western fallen star!
( . . .)
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
In the second section, the poet talks about how the great star has fallen. The “shades of night” and “moody, tearful night” symbolically refer to the night Lincoln was shot. The line “the black murk that hides the star” pictures the unpleasant and unnatural death of Lincoln. Despite knowing what happened, the poet finds himself, powerless and helpless. The extended sorrow is pictured in the metaphor “harsh surrounding cloud,” for the nation is filled with mourning for the great loss.
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
( . . . )
A sprig with its flower I break.
In the third section, the poet again focuses on the beauty of the Spring, especially the lustrous ferns and petals. The Lilac amongst is “tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves.” It also has a strong fragrance that the poet loves. Everything about the, the poet sees as a miracle. Also, the flowers serve as a metaphor for the fragile nature of life. The beautiful imagery present in the section explains life’s profundity and uncertainty of human life.
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
( . . . )
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)
Section four denotes the change in the mood and setting of the poem. The poet now imagines himself in the “swamp” and listening to a “hidden bird is warbling a song.” In the context of the poet mourning, the words “withdrawn to himself” and “Sings by himself” imply the poet’s isolated and sober mood. Further, the example of the thrush that sings alone, suggests the important role of poetry to express the emotion of people. If emotions are not expressed, like the thrush, people too cannot live.
Section Five and Six
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
( . . . )
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
In section five & six, the poet portrays the vivacity of life and death through the image of a coffin. Amidst spring, which symbolizes life, Whitman talks of a coffin that journey day and night. It carries the corpse through the “endless grass,” and “yellow-spear’d wheat.” Here, the Coffin and Corpse symbolically refer to Abraham Lincoln, whose body upon his death was carried across the nation to express homage.
(Nor for you, for one alone,
( . . . )
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)
Section seven, written within parenthesis explains the poet offers the flowers of the spring from the one coffin, to many. In other ways, he addresses all the people who sacrificed their lives in the civil war. On the coffins that are already covered in roses, the speaker likes to cover with roses and early The poet uses a more resigned tone to death, wherewith the apostrophe “O Death” he addresses it directly and offers to cover it with the lilacs. The abundant flowers bloomed, which indicate the season in full bloom, he agrees to offer to death. The image “loaded arms” in line 53 present in the section fills the reader’s mind with the image of the death being personified like a person and the poet approaches with hands full of flowers.
O western orb sailing the heaven,
( . . . )
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.
Section eight describes the poet’s experience with the western orb and his troubled soul upon the loss of the star. The section presents an image of the poet walking night after night, beside the orb, to impart the knowledge it has to the poet. He “walk’d in silence,” denotes mourning. The paradox “transparent shadowy night” employed in line 57, presents the ambiguity of death upon life. In line 60, the poet personifies the western star as a companion with whom he walked the “solemn night,” when he could not sleep. The following line completes it further, for the star is full of woe, and that sad orb is lost in the night. The poet has employed the symbolism in the Western orb, for Abraham Lincoln was like a guiding star to the people of America.
Sing on there in the swamp,
( . . . )
The star my departing comrade holds and detains me.
In section nine, we are again dealing with the bird, singing in the swamp again. The Anaphora “I hear” employed draws a close connection between the speaker and the singer. The speaker, in this section, seems to understand the song. Yet, his memory of the star is still holding him back. For that reason, he couldn’t enjoy the song fully.
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
( . . . )
I’ll perfume the grave of him I love.
In section ten, beginning with rhetorical questions, the poet expresses his view on how he will perfume the grave of his loved one. Finally, he decides to blend the smell of “Sea-winds” from east and west, blended with the sea odor mixed at the plain land along with the “breath of my chant.” This is how he perfumes the grave of his loved one.
O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
( . . . )
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.
In section eleven, the poet thinks of the pictures that he would hang on the walls of the burial house. The house the poet means here is not the actual house for the poem was written sometime after the death of Lincoln. The poet metaphorically means the memory of Abraham Lincoln. The poet gives a list of pictures he would like to hang in the burial house. He thinks of the picture of “growing spring and farms and homes” with the fourth-month eve at sundown, referring to April, when Abraham Lincoln died. The pictures, despite their intended purpose, celebrate the beauty of life. The speaker’s choice of pictures portrays the continuance of life despite its uncertainty.
Lo, body and soul—this land,
( . . . )
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.
The imagery present in section twelve gives a vivid picture of America with all its beauty and different landscapes. The poet addresses the body and soul to look at the beauty of America. The varying landscapes of America are present in the description of “Manhattan,” “Ohio,” and “Missouri.” “The phrases “South and the North in the light” and “far-spreading prairies” evoke the sense of America being one, despite the difference people felt and the civil war. The following lines, describe the beauty of America, as in the Morning, Noon, and Night. The sun shines across the country “calm” in the morning, as noon comes its light bathes the city with its light. The evening, which is delicious, welcomes the night and the star to shine overall, including man and land.
Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,
( . . . )
Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.
In section thirteen, the poet revisits the bird in the swamp. He encourages the bird to keep singing for he thinks that is the only solace. Also, he presents the idea of life persisting “Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines” despite the darkness. In line 102, the poet calls the bird as a brother, which makes its song a “human thing” with the voice of uttermost woe, symbolizing the pain and loss of people at that time. The metaphor present in the further lines describes the quality of the bird’s song as “liquid and free and tender” and the bird as a “wondrous singer.” The last two lines of the section depict the inevitable truth of life. Life goes on despite the loss of the loved ones holding back like the mastering odor of the Lilac.
Now while I sat in the day and look’d forth,
( . . . )
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.
In section fourteen of ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’, the speaker appears to be blending all the settings together. As the section opens he brings forth a sense of unity among the different part of the landscapes as the people prepares for the “close of the day.” It is also indicative of the conclusion of the poem. He symbolically looks back at the Civil War, “the perturb’d winds and the storms,” as well as Lincoln’s assassination. Yet, he gives a list, and a sense of movement going forward in words like “passing,” “many moving,” “sail’d” (sailed), and “approaching,” which renders reference to Life moving forward.
Come lovely and soothing death,
( . . . )
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.
The poet’s mood swift and transformation with death is captured in the song. He makes death appear less severe in this song as he addresses it as “lovely and soothing death.” In the following lines, he comments death to be “undulate[s] round the world,” which maintains the speaker’s sense of unity, seen throughout the poem. It “arrives” to each only the timing varies. It isn’t something tragic but a natural part of life. According to him, the “delicate death” arrives “serenely.” Therefore, in terms of life and death, we need not understand the depth of death but celebrate the joy life brings. Even he is willing to welcome death with a song. Through the song, the speaker feels how would be managed to transcend his woe.
To the tally of my soul,
( . . . )
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
In section fifteen Whitman goes back to the bird that managed to keep up with the speaker’s song the whole time with the notes that are “filling the night.” Things around him seem to be “clear” and “fresh” as the mood changes compared to the earlier sections of woe. Even the speaker’s voice sounds uplifted, as he talks of a wide scope of “visions” occurring simultaneously. The speaker sees “the armies” and all their “battle-flags” and smoke, which replays the image of the Civil War. The remains of the flags “torn and bloody,” implicit the human cost of the war that has stained upon the very symbol of the country. Since most of them died in the war are “young men,” the poet thinks as if the future of America has been partially lost. The anaphora “I saw,” employed gives a realistic view of the severity of war.
Passing the visions, passing the night,
( . . . )
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
In the concluding section, the poet revisits his different visions that seem to be whirling past in one fluid motion. By the end, we know “death’s outlet song” is also a “victorious song” despite its “ever-altering” moods. The speaker is also “passing” the lilacs coming in a full circle to where the poem began. The image, “silver face in the night” also reminds us of the poem’s driving force, Abraham Lincoln. The poet alludes to the song of the burd in the previous section, illuminated death for us in a less severe way. That “drooping star” we saw in the very beginning is back to end the poem, along with all of the speaker’s comrades. In the concluding lines, he mentions clearly that this elegy for that “sweetest, wisest soul” of his time.
‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ was written in memory of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of America. He was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth, a few days later following the end of The Civil War on April 14, 1865. In his own words, Whitman describes his inspiration for writing the poem in his: “I remember where I was stopping at the time, the season being advanced; there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms. It never fails.”
Whitman, besides ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’, written the other two poems ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ and “Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day” in memory of Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, in literature, we have numerous attempts made to write elegy upon the death of loved ones. Some notable among them: Thomas Gray’s, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,‘ Alfred Lord Tennyson’s, ‘In Memoriam A. H. H’, and Theodore Roethke’s Elegy for Jane.