When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Themes
by Walt Whitman

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” never mentions President Lincoln by name, nor does it mention the Civil War directly; Lincoln’s death and the war are the occasion for the poet’s meditation on death and its place in the human and natural universe. The poet knows that his personal grief is a national grief—he admits as much in his references (in section 6) to the coffin passing through the streets—and his task is to transform his individual mourning into an evocation of feelings that can be universally shared.

The response to Lincoln’s death is so overwhelming that the event is like the death or fall of a star—a momentous occurrence that demands the poet’s fullest measure of understanding. Nowhere does he explicitly connect the drooping star and Lincoln, but in the first section the two are joined by proximity, and later they are joined by the poet’s tendency to interpret his feelings in terms of what he sees and absorbs in nature. Lincoln is to his society as the star is to the heavens—an analogical view of existence that the poet pursues in the bond he feels with the solitary singing bird.

Implicit also in the poem is Whitman’s assertion that the true significance of Lincoln’s death can be grasped only by poetry—not by rational, logical thought, but by the rhythmical organization of sound patterns and images that is identical to the repetitive patterns of life. The poet strives for the presentation of a whole experience, not merely a description of his feelings toward Lincoln’s death or toward death itself. Instead, the poem is meant to be an experience, a dramatization of the natural cycle, a piece of an ongoing phenomenon to which Whitman alludes in his references to “ever-returning...

(The entire section is 460 words.)