“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 cycle of the seasons a reason for the coming of death. Sections 5 and 6 describe the procession of Lincoln’s coffin, the spectacle of a whole society mourning its loss and acknowledging the presence of death, an inescapable fact that leads the poet (in sections 7 through 14) to merge his individual sorrow with that of society and with the evidence that nature presents of birth, growth, and death.
Section 14 intensifies the poet’s identification with death; he creates a lyric of welcome to “delicate death,” calling it a “dark mother,” a “strong deliveress” from the struggle of existence, a peaceful release into the elements of the universe. Section 15 takes this more assured feeling about death and suggests that the horrible suffering of the Civil War battlefields, the grief of mothers and children for those who were slain, has become transformed into a vision of men at rest, enjoying relief from the agony associated with the memories of the living.
Summing up in section 16 his visions of the lilac blooming in the dooryard, the reciprocal song of poet and thrush, and the governing image of the drooping western star, the poet has found a way both to contain his anguish and to find its expression in the natural and human elements he has described: “Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,/ There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”
Forms and Devices
Because Whitman feels so strongly that human grief must be understood as part of the recurrent cycle of nature, of the change and the return of the seasons, he relies on the simplest of all devices: repetition. Thus the lines of the first section are repeated in several sections, especially at the end of the poem, which focuses on the images of lilac and star and on the bird’s song, which echoes and evokes the poet’s own song. Indeed the poem has an echoing effect, as if the poet’s first choice of words in sections 1 through 4 must be given similar answering words in subsequent sections.
In another kind of repetition, the poet takes a word such as “warble” and applies it both to the bird and to himself, making the word stand for the identity between himself and nature. Similarly, his precise observation of the “delicate-color’d blossoms” of the lilac later merges (in section 14) into his ode to “delicate death.” By offering a sprig of lilac to Lincoln, in other words, the poet is signifying his understanding of this individual instance of death, which then becomes linked to his expanded awareness (later in the...
(The entire section is 1,105 words.)