When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Questions and Answers
by Walt Whitman

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Discuss how "When Lilacs Last in the Doorway Bloomed"' by Walt Whitman is a poem that affirms life yet also is a poem of death.

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Jay Gilbert, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This poem by Whitman is very much focused on the cyclical nature of life. As such, while it is concerned with "mourn[ing]" of things which have passed—the "drooping star" and the brevity of human life—its tone is optimistic, reiterating that some things are "perennial," like spring and love.

To an extent, the speaker is obviously consumed by his own sadness—in the second stanza, his repeated exclamations enumerate the many ways in which he is suffering because of what has "disappear'd" from his life. However, the following stanza returns once again to the symbolic lilac bush and its "miracle" which produces new blossoms every year. The speaker does not want to focus only on the sadder points, although he spends many lines describing the passage of a coffin through a town. He creates a balance, juxtaposing phrases like "fresh as the morning" with "sacred death," and the image of death bedecked with "roses and early lilies." For everything that dies, the poem suggests, something else will bloom and live.

The conclusion of the poem very much underlines this idea. The scent and imagery of lilacs have permeated the poem and been placed as perfume upon the graves of the dead: at the end, the scent of lilacs and cedar seem to represent the hope that is part of mourning—hope that things will bloom again, and that our departed will one day be with us once more.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think that the statement is accurate in describing Whitman's poem.  To a great extent, all elegies are works that strive to mourn the loss of an individual through death but also affirm the life that they led.  The elegy's birth only comes out of an affirmational rationale to honor the dead.  This poem is no exception.  Whitman writes it to mourn the loss of Lincoln, but honor him at the same time.  "The great star" is a line that directly refers to Lincoln.  The fact that it shone becomes the reason that the poem is written, but also because that source of light and beacon "early droop'd" is another reason why the poet feels the need to compose the poem. Even the mere title plays with this juxtaposition.  On one hand, the idea of blooming lilacs affirms life itself.  Recalling when they last did so brings the notion that such beauty and purity are no longer present.  To honor such a condition is to pay homage that it has now passed, and the poem appropriates this same demeanor towards Lincoln.

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