The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

“Lilacs” is a poem of 109 lines of free verse separated into four stanzas. The first and third stanzas are of unequal length; the first is a long stanza of fifty-two lines, and the third has twenty-seven lines. The second and fourth stanzas are fifteen lines each. Another asymmetry in the poem is that stanzas 1, 2, and 4 begin with the same five brief lines: “Lilacs,/ False blue,/ White,/ Purple,/ Colour of lilac.” By contrast, the association of lilacs with New England that is mentioned briefly in stanza 1 is developed in the opening lines of stanza 3: “Maine knows you,/ Has for years and years;/ New Hampshire knows you,/ And Massachusetts/ and Vermont.”

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Also interesting is the change in perspective as the poem progresses. In the first three stanzas Amy Lowell speaks to the lilacs directly, addressing them as “you.” In the first stanza, she mentions the timelessness of the lilacs and lingers on their details: their heart-shaped leaves and the crooks of their branches. From precise physical detail the poem moves to the acts of lilacs, and it becomes apparent that they are more than mere flowering shrubs. She describes the effect they have on preachers, schoolboys, housewives, and clerks, typical New England figures. Wherever the lilacs occur they have a beneficial effect, as when they call to the clerks and cause them to write poetry.

Lowell refers to the Persian origin of lilacs in the second stanza, comparing their exotic beginning with the domestic attitude the shrub has adopted in New England: “A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,/ Standing beside clean doorways,/ Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles.” Lowell is still speaking directly to the lilacs, but the sensibility of the speaker is clear. She has a sharp eye and a profound attachment to nature, and she is deeply grounded in the New England of the poem. Although “I” is not used yet, it is reasonable to assume that the speaker is the poet herself rather than an assumed persona.

In the third stanza, Lowell connects the lilacs to specific New England places, such as Cape Cod and Maine. She also specifies, and repeats, the time of year, May, when the lilacs are most profuse and associates the flowers with a luminous series of spring nature images. Lowell finally reveals herself fully in the fourth stanza, where “I” appears for the first time. She claims both lilac and New England as her own in a metaphor in which she becomes both the flower and the place. The poem builds to a powerful, almost triumphant ending as she “sings” the lilacs as her own.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

“Lilacs” uses many of the techniques of the Imagists, a group of poets bound by similar ideas who were active roughly between 1905 and 1917. The group was first led, and perhaps defined, by poet and critic Ezra Pound with the help of another American poet, Hilda Doolittle (H. D.). Lowell became identified with the group in 1913 and displaced Pound as leader in 1915. She organized the group to carry out a publicity campaign to free poetry from the “tyranny” of rhyme, regular meter, and other traditional devices. Under Lowell’s leadership the annual anthology, Some Imagist Poets, was published for three years and contained statements of Imagist theory. The Imagists believed in short poems structured around a single image or metaphor, clarity and concreteness of detail, economy of language, and an avoidance of abstract meaning or “message.” Imagist poems generally were concerned with presenting an object or scene for the direct understanding of the reader.

The patterns of stanza openings and length first establish expectations in the readers’ minds and then cause a small shock of surprise when the patterns are broken. This asymmetry affects both the eye and the ear and is characteristic of free verse, which was widely used by the Imagists.

The poem is structured around the lilacs of the title, the central image. An image refers to sensual impressions that the poem reproduces in the mind of the reader. Lowell carefully establishes the visual image of the lilacs by listing their colors and their shapes, “great puffs,” at the beginning of three stanzas. She mentions the fragrance of the flowers in the first stanza and, since odors are difficult to describe, brings it to life by describing the effect the fragrance has, primarily on New England clerks in customhouses. The lilacs are personified—they acquire human characteristics. They are as active as the people: They tap the window, run beside the schoolboy, and persuade the housewife that her husband is pure gold.

Repetition is an important device in the poem. The five identical, very short lines that open stanzas 1, 2, and 4 acquire an incantatory quality, as if the colors of the lilacs have some magical power. The repetition also keeps the image fresh in readers’ minds as the poem explores other aspects of the shrub in addition to its appearance. “New England,” first introduced in the seventh line of the poem, is repeated several times, each time becoming more specific until it culminates in the final metaphor.

Not only are images repeated, but sentence structure tends to fall into patterns as well. In the first stanza, Lowell establishes a pattern of subject/verb when she addresses the lilacs: “You are . . ./ You were . . .” and repeats the pattern eight times. In the third stanza Lowell expands the meaning of lilacs in a series of metaphors, one of which plays on the figure used in stanza 1 that describes lilac leaves as “heart-shaped.” Here she speaks of “the leaf-shapes of our hearts,” an implied metaphor that connects the human and botanical world in a concise phrase. Everywhere, Lowell exhibits an economy of language. Seven lines in sequence begin with “May is” and pile up images in a series of tight metaphors.

The climax of a poem occurs when a series of sentences that repeat words from previous sentences build to a high point of force or excitement. This high point occurs in the fourth stanza, when the two major images that are repeated many times in the poem are fused with the speaker when she reveals herself overtly for the first time. Lowell switches to the first person, a tradition in lyric poetry. The effect is dramatic; the poem suddenly changes from an ode to lilacs to a powerful personal statement. Stanza 4 effectively unites all the imagery in one extended metaphor. Lowell identifies herself as the lilac with roots and leaves, and then with New England. In the lyrical line “Lilac in me because I am New England,” she uses synecdoche, a type of metaphor in which a small part stands for the whole.

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Themes