When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d - Summary
The first poem of the Memories of President Lincoln grouping is its best known. As an elegy, it commemorates the death of President Lincoln by assassination on April 14, 1865, though it never mentions the president directly. Whitman begins the poem by painting a picture of spring and fading flowers, which mark the event of the death of the president. In the same way that spring will return and the lilacs will bloom again, so will the president remain in Whitman’s thoughts. Caught in a moment of deep grief over the loss “of him I love,” Whitman feels “helpless” at the “cruel hands that hold [him] powerless” in the face of death,
In the third and fourth sections of the poem, Whitman introduces two of its key symbols. The lilacs, a perennial flower of spring, contain in “every leaf a miracle,” and Whitman breaks off a “sprig with its flower” to keep with him. The thrush, a “shy and hidden bird,” sings a song “of the bleeding throat, / Death’s outlet song of life.” Its song about death keeps the bird alive.
The next few sections follow the course of a coffin passing “through lanes and streets” and “[t]hrough night and day.” Whitman is describing his impressions of the processions he witnessed or imagined when President Lincoln’s body was carried through more than a dozen American cities. He is affected by the gatherings that witness the procession of the coffin: They are a “silent sea of faces” with “unbared heads” singing “strong and solemn” and “mournful.” The poet lays the “sprig of lilac” on the coffin as it passes. As he does so, he thinks not only of this specific death of the president, but of all deaths. He is overwhelmed with the desire to bring flowers to mark the occasion of every death: “I break the sprigs from the bushes, / With loaded arms I come, pouring for you, / For you and the coffins all of you O death.”
Whitman then realizes that the star he has seen shine so brightly, the “western orb sailing the heaven,” has tried to communicate with him, to warn him of a deep sadness on its way. Whitman remembers feeling sleepless one night a month earlier. When he looks up to the sky to relieve his restlessness, he remarks that the star “droop’d from the sky low as if to my side.” But he does not know what to make of the message that he now recognizes as one predicting grief: “As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe.” Whitman is “lost in the netherward black of the night,” and does not interpret the message at the time of its signal. As he now “lingers” with the star, he also hears the thrush singing its death song. These prompt him to consider how to mourn death appropriately—how and what to sing, what to use to “perfume the grave of him I love,” how to “adorn the burial house.”
As the poet reflects on death, he understands how it is a part of life. Just as he witnesses “heavenly aerial beauty,” “many-moving sea tides,” and the “throbbings” of streets, so he must experience death “as walking one side of me.” Once the poet accepts the truth of death, he begins to celebrate its importance. The death song that the thrush sings is translated into words, “the voice of my spirit,” in the song that appears in italics at this point in the poem.
Finally, Whitman reconciles the inevitability of death with the pulses of life by understanding that the dead are “not as was thought.” That is, when he considers how so many deaths have occurred—during the “smoke of battles,” “torn and bloody”—he links death with suffering. Ultimately, the poet is at ease with death because he learns that the dead are no longer suffering: “They themselves were fully at rest, they stiffer’d not.”...
(The entire section contains 1076 words.)
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