Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632
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 fourth symbol, the thrush that sings a solitary song, is introduced in section 4.
Section 5 describes the coffin of Lincoln journeying night and day across the country (as it did in reality on its journey from Washington to Springfield, Illinois), as spring bursts through everywhere. Church bells toll, and as the coffin moves slowly past the poet, he throws his sprig of lilac onto it, although he makes it clear that this act is not for Lincoln alone (who is never mentioned by name in the poem) but for all who have died.
After an apostrophe to the evening star, which, in sympathy with the poet’s state of mind, is sinking in woe, the poet returns to the song of the hermit thrush. Although he hears and understands the call, he cannot yet sing with the thrush, because the star (now clearly associated, as “my departing comrade,” with Lincoln) still holds him. Eventually, as he looks out one spring evening on a serene landscape, an understanding of the true nature of death comes upon him like a mystical revelation. He personifies the knowledge of death, and his own thoughts about death, as two figures walking alongside him. Now he is able to interpret the song of the bird as a “carol of death.” A long aria, reminiscent of the song of the bird in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” follows. Death is described as soft, welcome, delicate, blissful, and as a “strong deliveress.”
In section 15, the poet sees a surrealistic vision of a battlefield, on which lie myriad corpses and whitened skeletons. The poet sees that the dead are at rest and do not suffer; it is only those left behind—families and comrades—who suffer. He leaves the vision behind and is also able to leave behind the birdsong, the lilac, and the evening star. The meaning of all these symbols now remains a permanent part of his awareness, however, so the elegy can move to its stately and moving close: “For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,/ Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,/ There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”