When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd

by Walt Whitman

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How does "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" by Walt Whitman affirm life and address death?

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This poem by Whitman is very much focused on the cyclical nature of life. As such, while it is concerned with "mourn[ing]" of things which have passed—the "drooping star" and the brevity of human life—its tone is optimistic, reiterating that some things are "perennial," like spring and love.

To an extent, the speaker is obviously consumed by his own sadness—in the second stanza, his repeated exclamations enumerate the many ways in which he is suffering because of what has "disappear'd" from his life. However, the following stanza returns once again to the symbolic lilac bush and its "miracle" which produces new blossoms every year. The speaker does not want to focus only on the sadder points, although he spends many lines describing the passage of a coffin through a town. He creates a balance, juxtaposing phrases like "fresh as the morning" with "sacred death," and the image of death bedecked with "roses and early lilies." For everything that dies, the poem suggests, something else will bloom and live.

The conclusion of the poem very much underlines this idea. The scent and imagery of lilacs have permeated the poem and been placed as perfume upon the graves of the dead: at the end, the scent of lilacs and cedar seem to represent the hope that is part of mourning—hope that things will bloom again, and that our departed will one day be with us once more.

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I think that the statement is accurate in describing Whitman's poem.  To a great extent, all elegies are works that strive to mourn the loss of an individual through death but also affirm the life that they led.  The elegy's birth only comes out of an affirmational rationale to honor the dead.  This poem is no exception.  Whitman writes it to mourn the loss of Lincoln, but honor him at the same time.  "The great star" is a line that directly refers to Lincoln.  The fact that it shone becomes the reason that the poem is written, but also because that source of light and beacon "early droop'd" is another reason why the poet feels the need to compose the poem. Even the mere title plays with this juxtaposition.  On one hand, the idea of blooming lilacs affirms life itself.  Recalling when they last did so brings the notion that such beauty and purity are no longer present.  To honor such a condition is to pay homage that it has now passed, and the poem appropriates this same demeanor towards Lincoln.

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"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" by Walt Whitman is as much a poem about affirming life as it is a poem about death. Do you agreee?

The poem mourns the loss of President Lincoln, charting the journey of his coffin throughout the country. Yet, Whitman also uses the poem to reconcile himself with the idea of death. The striking symbol of the "lilac blooming perennial" evokes both the continuing mourning of the poet but also his enduring love. Read alongside the sections that describe the incessant flow of human activities (particularly section 14), the symbol of the lilacs comes to represent perpetual renewal of life and thus its affirmation. Other important symbols that represent the reconciliation of life and death are the "powerful, western, fallen Star" and the bird.

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"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" by Walt Whitman is as much a poem about affirming life as it is a poem about death. Do you agreee?

I definitely agree. If you read this excellent poem lamenting the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln carefully, you will see, apart from the many instances of images and words that convey the poet's shock and sorrow about the death of the President, many images that also celebrate the rebirth of life and nature's natural cycle. Note first of all that the poem is set in spring, an obvious time of rebirth and a celebration of the cycle of nature as life emerges. Note the following quote from the first stanza:

O ever-returing spring! trinity sure to me you bring;

Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

It is as if the meditation on death that this poem represents places our lives in the scheme of the natural cycle of life. As we read through the poem we see many more such examples that celebrate life and the rebirth inherent in nature. Every leaf of the lilac plant is said to be a "miracle" as it grows and blossoms, just as the poet mourns the death of his friend. At every stage, death is coupled with new life, as in the following stanza:

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,

Amid lanes, and through old woods, (where lately the violets peep'd

from the ground, spotting the grey debris;)

Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes--passing the endless grass;

Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprising;

Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards;

Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,

Night and day journeys a coffin.

Note here how there is ample evidence of the phoenix-like qualities of nature. Violets are emerging, the wheat is "yellow-spear'd" and growing, the apple trees are blossoming, all alongside the corpse that "shall rest in the grave."

Thus in this poem it is clear that Whitman is keen to set this tragic event against a wider framework that celebrates life and affirms it. This is not a mere lament, but a poem that talks about the cycle of life and how the world continues and how often death is coupled with life.

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