When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd (American History Through Literature)
Between the publication of the third edition of Leaves of Grass in 1860 and the fourth in 1867, Walt Whitman's (1819892) life and the life of the country underwent major changes revolving around the outbreak of the Civil War. In December 1862 Whitman traveled from New York City to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to find his brother George, who had been wounded in the battle there. Whitman stayed for nearly two weeks, searching for his brother in the hospitals of the capital and eventually finding him in Fredericksburg. In January 1863 he moved to Washington, D.C., in order to visit the wounded, sick, and dying soldiers in the military hospitals. In three years Whitman visited thousands of young men, dispensing small gifts and writing letters for the badly wounded and illiterate. Meanwhile the poet managed to find a part-time position as a copyist in the Army Paymaster's Office; eventually he would become a clerk in the Interior Department and in the Attorney General's Office, remaining in government service until he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873. In the little free time he had left, Whitman walked along Rock Creek with a new friend, the naturalist John Burroughs (1837921), who would become his first biographer and lifelong defender. Whitman's aesthetic revolution, both in subject matter and in technique, led to censorship, dismissal from government service, and moral outrage, but Burroughs was a steadfast critical voice from 1865 to his own death in 1921.
Many of the changes brought about by the Civil War pertain to the scale of economic and social life, for in the years following the war America moved toward an urban, industrial model of society and culture. But these developments made the Civil War a vast field of maiming and death. In a dramatic fashion, the scale of technological change is figured in the torn bodies of the wounded soldiers. The technology of weaponry, for example, far outran the military training in field tactics, so that breech-loading repeating rifles combined with frontal assaults to produce astronomical numbers of casualties. The dead piled high, as did the wounded, but perhaps most horrific were the piles of mutilated, amputated limbs, such as the scene Whitman recorded at a field hospital in Falmouth, Virginia:
Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover'd with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt. (Prose Works 1892 1:32)
The transportation of troops by railroad was another technological development, but again the result was the massing of troops against one another in spectacular slaughters. Battles like Antietam, Wilderness, and Petersburg inflicted deep wounds on an entire generation. When President Abraham Lincoln said of General Ulysses S. Grant that he had at last found a commander who could "face the arithmetic" (Neely, p. 74), he clearly discerned the new scale of death. The assassination of President Lincoln took place on the evening of 14 April 1865, and the president died on the morning of 15 April. In May 1865 Whitman published the volume Drum-Taps, a collection of fifty-three poems that he had been writing from early in the war years. But after only a few copies had been bound, Whitman printed an eighteen-poem Sequel to Drum-Taps and bound it in with the first volume. The Sequel contained his most popular poemO Captain! My Captain!"nd his most important elegyWhen Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Soon after the publication of the two volumes, Whitman was abruptly dismissed from his clerk-ship in the Bureau of Indian Affairs by the new secretary of the interior, James Harlan, who discovered Whitman's copy of the 1861 Leaves of Grass in the clerk's desk and declared it obscene. Whitman's friend William D. O'Connor visited Attorney General J. Hubley Ashton, who reinstated Whitman and transferred him to his own department. O'Connor then published his biographical vindication of Whitman in January 1866, The Good Gray Poet. Meanwhile John Burroughs's essay "Walt Whitman and His 'Drum-Taps'" appeared in Galaxy magazine in December 1866, and in 1867 Burroughs published the book Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person, the first critical book on Whitman's poetry.
THE ROLE OF NATURE
As was the case with O'Connor's hagiography, Whitman exercised great control over Burroughs's critical study, even drafting the important chapter "Standard of the Natural Universal." The chapter gives a highly developed version of Whitman's thinking about nature in the 1860s, and for that reason it deserves special mention in relation to "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." The argument of the chapter centers on the role of nature as a standard for all of culture, beginning with the first rhetorical question: "What is the reason that the inexorable and perhaps deciding standard by which poems, and other productions of art, must be tried, after the application of all minor tests, is the standard of absolute Nature?" (Burroughs, Notes on Walt Whitman, p. 37). The thirteen pages of the chapter argue that the most important poetic quality is the writer's "passionate affiliation and identity with Nature" and that "the most vaunted beauties of the best artificial productions" should be subordinated "to the daily and hourly beauty of the shows and objects of outward Nature. I mean inclusively, the objects of Nature in their human relations" (p. 38). Moreover, the "objects of Nature" provide the human spirit "its only inlet to clear views of the highest Philosophy and Religion. Only in their spirit can he himself have health, sweetness, and proportion" (p. 38).
Despite the centrality of nature to Burroughs's account of Whitman, relatively few poems in the 1865 Drum-Taps volume focus on it. Instead, the war and the suffering of soldiers take center stage, and nature functions more as choral commentary upon the main actions and actors than as a full-fledged participant in the drama. Nature plays a limited role in Drum-Taps because it plays a decidedly minor role in the poet's vision of the Civil War. That is far from the case in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." The poem is a pastoral elegy for Abraham Lincoln, but like all great elegies it transcends the particular loss of a beloved to become a deep, sustained meditation on death. In "Lilacs," moreover, Whitman meditates on the Civil War and the fate of America.
Nature provides the three most important images in the elegiac drama. The lilacs and "great star" are associated with the season during which Lincoln died, and as such they function as metonymic images for his loss. Whitman follows the conventions of pastoral elegy quite closely, especially in the ways nature joins in the mourning of the beloved's death. In particular, the "drooping star in the west" (l. 5) evokes both Lincoln and the poet's sense of powerlessness. In section 2 of the poem, the "powerful western fallen star" disappears in a "black murk" or "harsh surrounding cloud" (ll. 7, 9, 11). Whitman recurs to this image in section 8, in a more developed situation; here, the poet recalls the star "sailing the heaven" a month before and imagines that the star had "something to tell" and was "full . . . of woe" (ll. 55, 59, 62). But as in section 2, the star sinks and is lost, and the poet's soul sinks as well.
In the retrospective vision of the prose work Specimen Days (1882), Whitman evokes the western star in a more general and hopeful way. The chapter called "The Weather.oes It Sympathize with These Times?" ponders the analogies between the weather and the upheaval of the Civil War, and then Whitman notes, "As the President came out on the capitol portico, a curious little white cloud, the only one in that part of the sky, appear'd like a hovering bird, right over him" (Prose Works 1892 1:94). This natural augury becomes more pronounced in the second half of the chapter, in which Whitman focuses on "the western star, Venus" and notes that it "has never been so large, so clear; it seems as if it told something, as if it held rapport indulgent with humanity, with us Americans. . . . Then I heard, slow and clear, the deliberate notes of a bugle come up out of the silence, sounding so good through the night's mystery, no hurry, but firm and faithful, floating along, rising, falling leisurely, with here and there a long-drawn note" (1:945). The unspoken message and portentous imagery foretell the death of President Lincoln, but they also foretell the survival of the Union. That is exactly how Whitman treats the "tragic splendor" of Lincoln's assassination in the chapter "Death of President Lincoln," for he figures the death as "purging, illuminating all" and "throw[ing] round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while history lives, and love of country lasts" (1:98).
As the title of the poem suggests, the lilacs occupy an even more important place in the symbolism of the elegy. Whitman first figures the blossom as "blooming perennial" (l. 5), and in section 3 he describes a ceremonial moment. The poet approaches a pastoral "dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings" (l. 12), describes the lilac bush growing there, and then breaks "a sprig with its flower" (l. 17). Only in section 6 does one learn that the sprig of lilac is the poet's public offering to the president's coffin. Sections 5 and 6 give the most realistic description of the poem, recounting the journey of the presidential train through the American landscape, "with the great cloud darkening the land" (l. 34) and "with all the mournful voices of the dirges pour'd around the coffin" (l. 41). Even as the poet offers the coffin his sprig of lilac, however, ending section 6, he begins section 7 with an expansion of his gesture of mourning. The single sprig becomes armloads of lilacs, roses, and lilies, and they are offered to the plural "coffins" and ultimately to death itself.
In the beginning of the poem the poet praises the "trinity sure" (l. 4) that spring always brings to him, but in section 1 the third part of the trinity seems to be "thought of him I love" (l. 6). The personal designation of a beloved is appropriate to pastoral elegy, which traditionally is the lament of a shepherd for a deceased comrade. As Whitman's elegy progresses, however, the "thought of him I love" becomes the figure of the hermit thrush, a bird that Whitman had learned about from Burroughs.
In the essay "The Return of the Birds," first published in the May 1865 issue of Galaxy magazine, Burroughs notes that the hermit thrush is "quite a rare bird, of very shy and secluded habits" and is found "only in the deepest and most remote forests, usually in damp and swampy localities" (pp. 223). He describes the song of the hermit thrush as "wild and ethereal," a kind of "silver horn which he winds in the most solitary places" (pp. 23). According to Burroughs's old-age reminiscences, when Whitman told him his plans for the elegy he asked the naturalist for an appropriate bird for the poem, and Burroughs described the hermit thrush and its "pure, serene, hymn-like" (p. 23) song. The poet exclaimed, "That's my bird!"
The hermit thrush is introduced in section 4, solitary in a way that recalls the mockingbird of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and, like the earlier bird, elegiacally singing a "song of the bleeding throat, / Death's outlet song of life" (ll. 234). In sections 9 and 13 the poet addresses the thrush, commanding it to continue singing and apologizing for delaying his visit to it, for the star and lilac detain him. In the intervening sections 102, Whitman develops three gorgeous images of the American landscape. In the first section he imagines the "sea-winds" meeting in the central prairies (ll. 745), and they provide the perfume for Lincoln's grave. In the second, he paints pictures of country and city at sundown, and these will adorn the "burial-house" (l. 81). Finally, in the third section he clears away any trace of the black cloud, giving a bright panorama of the "varied and ample land" (l. 92).
THE ROLE OF THE BIRDSONG
The poem does not develop as a linear narrative, but in section 14 the poet begins with "the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and forests" (l. 111), lovingly retracing the panoramic vision of section 12. Suddenly, however, the cloud reappears, and the poet announces a new dimension to the poem: "Appear'd the cloud, appear'd the long black trail, / And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death" (ll. 11819). The narrative is not wholly realistic, for in section 14 the poet walks with the two companions, the knowledge of death and the thought of death. This second trinity approaches "the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still" (l. 126), and the poet at last hears the song of the hermit thrush. In seven free-verse quatrains, with varying line lengths, Whitman renders the song of the bird as the voice of his own spirit. The song welcomes death as a personified "dark mother" and "strong deliveress," and it brings together the "sights of the open landscape" and the "husky whispering wave" (ll. 144, 148, 154, 157). Unlike the birdsong in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," however, the thrush's song ends in joy, not grief.
The birdsong is a distinct opening in Whitman's pastoral elegy, moving the tone from grief toward consolation. In addition, the song leads to the opening of the poet's vision: "While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed, / As to long panoramas of visions" (ll. 16970). In this visionary opening Whitman first sees a nightmare vision of battle, in which fragments and shreds splinter and break into silence and "battle-corpses" become "white skeletons of young men" (ll. 178, 179). The bodies become body parts, and as the vision widens the parts become "the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war" (l. 180). Then, in a magical turn, the debris gives way to a further vision of consolation, for the poet sees "they were not as was thought" (l. 181). The poet's knowledge of death encompasses both the peace of the dead, who no longer suffer, and the suffering of the survivors, who must continue to mourn their losses. The wisdom of that knowledge is large and copious, and it leads Whitman to his final affirmations in section 16 of the poem. As he "resumes" the principal images of the poemilac and star and birde portrays himself as passing beyond the visionary experience of elegy, beyond the need for nature's meanings. And yet he finally knows there is no such passage beyond, but rather a perennial experience of retrievement. That is the final, perennial wisdom Whitman gains from the experience: "Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul, / There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim" (ll. 20708).
ELEGY IN WHITMAN'S CAREER
"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is properly recognized as Whitman's finest elegy, combining the powerful sense of tragic loss with the persuasive movement toward consolation and acceptance. Whitman himself must have recognized the success of the poem, for he revised it very little after its initial publication. Moreover, he kept the poem in a separate cluster devoted to President Lincoln through the last three editions of Leaves of Grass (1867, 1871, and 1881), though many of the other poems migrated widely from one cluster to another before coming to rest in the final arrangements of the 1881 edition.
The Civil War and the death of Lincoln continued to exercise a profound influence on Whitman during the last quarter century of his life. He wrote extensively on both the common soldiers and the president in his prose works Memoranda during the War (1875) and Specimen Days. In addition, from 1879 on he delivered a memorial lecture on Lincoln whenever his health permitted. The ritual of memory is itself elegiac, as if the mourner is never able to be completely consoled but must relive the loss and grief caused by the million deaths of the war. Indeed, the last two Civil War chapters of Specimen Days, "The Million Dead, Too, Summ'd Up" and "The Real War Will Never Get in the Books," dwell upon the unknown, mysterious violence and death of the four years. The "eternal darkness" and "interior history" of the unknown soldiers are buried with them, but for Whitman that was the spur to return, "with ever-returning spring" (l. 3), to the central importance of the war to his work and to the country.
Late poems are part of the pattern of recurrence or return. The beautiful lyric "Warble for Lilac-Time," for instance, creates a tone of tranquil joy, but it also evokes the restlessness of the soul, "the restlessness after I know not what" (l. 16). The two-line "Abraham Lincoln, Born Feb. 12, 1809," published in 1888, deifies the dead president by commanding readers to send their thoughts and prayers "to memory of Himo birth of Him" (l. 2). In one of his last poems, "A Twilight Song," Whitman revisits the "long-pass'd war scenes" and "countless buried unknown soldiers" (l. 2), musing on the "million unwrit names" as the "dark bequest from all the war" (l. 10). Although the poet claims that he recognizes now "a flash of duty long neglected" (l. 11), in fact he had already recorded the "mystic roll entire of unknown names" deep within his heart (ll. 134).
Such is the nature of elegy, and such the nature of Whitman's elegies for the Civil War dead. Perhaps that is why Whitman could rightly look to the war as the most important impetus to his poetry. Writing in "A Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads" (1888), therefore, the poet once again connects the war and his poetic career:
Only from the occurrence of the Secession War, and what it show'd me as by flashes of lightning, with the emotional depths it sounded and arous'd (of course, I don't mean in my own heart only, I saw it just as plainly in others, in millions)hat only from the strong flare and provocation of that war's sights and scenes the final reasons-for-being of an autochthonic and passionate song definitely came forth. (Prose Works 1892, p. 724)
Although Whitman is often criticized for his outsized ego, the retrospective vision suggests that he was fully capable of imagining the suffering of millions.
See also Civil War; Death; Leaves of Grass; Lyric Poetry; Mourning; Nature; Technology
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James Perrin Warren