Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” in the months following the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Whitman felt the loss of Lincoln personally. He had observed the president on a number of occasions in Washington, D.C. Once he saw him chatting with a friend at the White House and commented, “His face & manner . . . are inexpressibly sweet. . . . I love the President personally.” The elegy contains many of the elements that make up the traditional pastoral elegy, including the expression of grief and bewilderment by the poet, the sympathetic mourning of nature for the dead person (expressed by means of the pathetic fallacy), the rebirth of nature, a funeral procession, the placing of flowers on the bier, and finally, reconciliation and consolation.
Whitman’s elegy is also about how the poet transmutes his sorrow, which at the outset is so great that it prevents him from writing, to the point where he can once more create poetry.
The elegy centers around four symbols: the lilac, the evening star, spring, and the hermit thrush, a bird that sings in seclusion. These symbols recur in varied forms throughout the poem, like musical motifs. The poet first declares his grief and invokes Venus, the evening star, which has now fallen below the horizon and left him in darkness and sorrow. He then develops the lilac symbol: In the dooryard of an old some farmhouse, a lilac bush blossoms. Each heart-shaped leaf (a symbol of love) he regards as a miracle, and he breaks off a sprig....
(The entire section is 632 words.)
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