The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is a long poem in free verse divided into sixteen numbered sections. Written shortly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the poem expresses both Walt Whitman’s grief and his effort to incorporate the president’s death into an understanding of the universal cycle of life and death.

The first two sections are devoted to lamentation, to the poet’s sense that he will never be able to overcome his despair over the loss of the one he loved, and to the premonition of catastrophe he had experienced in his observation of the drooping western star. Nature itself seems obliterated by the “black murk” hiding the star.

In section 3, the poet shifts his attention to the lilac bush blooming in the dooryard. The tall lilac bush, with its heart-shaped leaves, is a natural symbol of the human heart and its capacity to mourn but also of its capacity to renew itself, as the lilac bush is renewed each spring. The flower’s powerful scent stirs the poet’s memory of the continual cycles of nature and stimulates both sadness and delight, which he expresses in breaking off a sprig of lilac in tribute to and memory of Lincoln.

Section 4 introduces the image of the solitary warbling thrush, which the poet later associates (in section 10) with his own warbling for the dead. Not only is grief natural, it is also what unites human beings and nature, and it is what allows the poet to see in...

(The entire section is 488 words.)