When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Analysis

Walt Whitman

The Poem

“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.)

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 poem) of how all death is figured in Lincoln’s loss.

What often seems to be merely reiteration of detail—as in the poet’s description (in section 13) of the thrush singing in the swamps and out of the dusk, the cedar, and the pines—is repeated at the very end of the poem, suggesting that what the poet observes...

(The entire section is 449 words.)


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