Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd' [1865]
Author:
French, R.W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

As an elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" may be placed in contexts both historical and literary. The historical facts need only brief mention. While attending a performance at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., on the evening of 14 April 1865, President Lincoln was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth; mortally wounded, he died the following morning. On 20 April his body lay in state at the Capitol, and the next day it began a 1,600-mile journey by rail across the landscape and through major cities on its way to Springfield, Illinois, for interment on 4 May. 

At the time of the assassination Whitman was with his mother in Brooklyn. As he recalls in Specimen Days, "The day of the murder we heard the news very early in the morning. Mother prepared breakfast—and other meals afterward—as usual; but not a mouthful was eaten all day by either of us. We each drank half a cup of coffee; that was all. Little was said. We got every newspaper morning and evening, and the frequent extras of that period, and pass'd them silently to each other" (Prose Works 1:31). Composition of "Lilacs" began almost immediately after the assassination and was completed within weeks. Initial publication was in Sequel to Drum-Taps, issued by Gibson Brothers in the fall of 1865 and bound with Drum-Taps; the poem made its first appearance in the text of Leaves of Grass in 1881, although Sequel, along with Drum-Taps and Songs Before Parting, had been bound with the fourth (1867) edition. 

Whitman had for years admired and defended the president. "I believe fully in Lincoln," he commented in an 1863 letter; "few know the rocks & quicksands he has to steer through" (Correspondence 1:163-164). Whitman had been present at Lincoln's second inauguration just weeks before the assassination. The president, he noted in a Specimen Days entry, "look'd very much worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, underneath the furrows. (I never see that man without feeling that he is one to become personally attach'd to, for his combination of purest, heartiest tenderness, and native western form of manliness.)" (Prose Works 1:92). 

While the assassination of President Lincoln is the occasion of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the subject, in the manner of elegy, is both other and broader than its occasion. "Lilacs" turns out to be not just about the death of Abraham Lincoln, but about death itself; in section 7, just after the poet has placed a sprig of lilac on the coffin, the poem makes a pointed transition: "Nor for you, for one alone," the poet chants, "Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring." Significantly, Lincoln is never mentioned by name in "Lilacs," nor does the poem relate the circumstances of his death; indeed, the absence of the historical Lincoln in the poem is one of its more striking features. Historical considerations give way to universal significance. The fact of assassination, for example, is not mentioned, for, while all people die, assassination is the fate of only a few. 

Discussion of the poem has focused largely on its style, on its structure, on the significance of its three major symbols of lilac, star, and thrush, and on the nature of the final resolution, with its distinction between "the thought of death" and "the knowledge of death," with whom the poet walks as companions (section 14). Stylistically, as opposed to the earlier Whitman of "Song of Myself," the poet of "Lilacs" works in a more Tennysonian mode, creating a poetry refined, mellifluous, and carefully controlled. Making no pretense of spontaneity, the poem proclaims on every line its artifice and its artistry. 

The general structure of "Lilacs" follows the traditional pattern of elegy in its movement from grief to consolation, and it includes such traditional elegiac elements as the funeral procession, the mourning of nature, the placing of flowers upon the coffin, the contrast between nature's cyclical renewal and humanity's mortality, the eulogy, and the final resolution of sorrow; the development, however, is notably indirect. "Lilacs" circles and turns back on itself, seeking direction until it finds rest in the concluding reconciliation; the pattern suggests the fluctuations of emotion rather than the strict progressions of logical development. The structure of "Lilacs" has also been likened to music, with its use of themes and motifs recurring in isolation and set off against each other, but moving always toward a concluding harmony. 

The three major symbols of the elegy—lilac, star, and hermit thrush—had particular significance for Whitman. In his lecture on Lincoln, delivered on a number of occasions from 1879 to 1890, Whitman recalled the day of the assassination. "I remember," he said, "where I was stopping at the time, the season being advanced, there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms. It never fails" (Prose Works 2:503). 

The star—actually, the planet Venus—was indeed low in the sky at the time of the assassination, as Whitman describes in the poem. In a Specimen Days entry dating from around the time of Lincoln's second inauguration, Whitman wrote, "Nor earth nor sky ever knew spectacles of superber beauty than some of the nights lately here. The western star, Venus, in the earlier hours of evening, has never been so large, so clear; it seems as if it told something, as if it held rapport indulgent with humanity, with us Americans" (Prose Works 1:94). 

A notebook entry of 1865 suggests the significance of the hermit thrush in the elegy: "Solitary Thrush . . . sings oftener after sundown sometimes quite in the night / is very secluded / likes shaded, dark, places in swamps . . . his song is a hymn . . . he never sings near the farm houses—never in the settlement / is the bird of the solemn primal woods & of Nature pure & holy" (Notebooks 2:766). 

In "Lilacs," the three major symbols accumulate meaning as the poem develops. While there are differing interpretations of each, the three being resonant and profound, in the nature of complex symbols, still, it is generally agreed that the star introduced in section 2 ("O great star disappear'd") is to be associated with the man who has died, although by no means is it to be considered simply as "Lincoln," and the lilac that enters the poem in section 3 ("tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green") suggests an exuberant, vital, sensuous nature, a nature of fecundity and eternal renewal. The thrush is of course also of nature, but in the poem it becomes more than merely natural. A creature "of Nature pure & holy," as in the notebook jotting quoted above, it expresses itself in song, and thus has been considered a figure of the bardic poet or the seer, a visionary singer of ultimate insight. 

While attention has been focused on the three major symbols, other images in the poem also take on symbolic value, most notably the cloud and the swamp. The cloud appears early, in section 2, as an image of oppression ("O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul"), and it returns late, in section 14; significantly, it is seen in that section immediately prior to the moment when the poet attains enlightened knowledge ("And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death"), an illumination it is unable to prevent, for by then it has become powerless, and the poet is free to make his journey to the swamp. 

Home of the secluded thrush, the swamp is a place of revelation, where words are given to intuitive knowledge. Like the beach, another setting important to Whitman as a site of revelation, the swamp is an in-between state, a meeting-place of earth and water; the poet specifically describes himself in section 14 as going "Down to the shores." 

As the major symbols suggest, "Lilacs" is firmly based in the natural world, and it is there that the poem must find its consolations. Whitman refused to seek comfort in the supernatural; the Christian vision of eternal life in heaven that Milton found in "Lycidas" was not available to him, and he deliberately avoided any suggestion of it. The lilacs will return; Lincoln will not, and he will have no life other than the one he has lost, not even in nature, for Whitman significantly refrained from invoking the view taken in section 6 of "Song of Myself," that death is no more than part of the continuum of life ("The smallest sprout shows there is really no death . . .") and thus may be dismissed as inconsequential. Whitman's experience of the Civil War, including of course his service in the hospitals, had evidently tempered his outlook; he had seen too much of death to dismiss it so readily. 

"Lilacs" offers the explicit consolation that death is a release from the sufferings of life. But if that rationale were all, there would be no need of the thrush, whose song is a joyous carol in praise of death, not a lament about the sorrows of human life. When the poet is ready to hear that song, he has already reconciled "the thought of death" with "the sacred knowledge of death" (section 14). While interpretations differ, it is significant that the word "sacred" is applied only to the latter. A thought may be fleeting and changeable, concerned with a particular death, while sacred knowledge suggests ultimate insight: complete comprehension of death itself and its place in the universal order. 

Whitman has the tact not to try to explain this insight, for it is necessarily intuitive and inexpressible. It comes suddenly, without prelude, at the unlikely moment when the cloud returns: "And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death" (section 14). One simply knows, as in the visionary passage of "Song of Myself," section 5, when the poet attains enlightenment: "Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth. . . ." 

"Passing the visions, passing the night," the poet of "Lilacs" moves on toward conclusion (section 16), ready to reclaim the life he has left, putting the experience of the night behind him, but by no means abandoning it. "Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night," he chants, knowing that the experience has been transforming, for the vision granted him has brought ultimate knowledge of life and death. At the end of "Lilacs," all disparate elements have been reconciled: "Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul, / There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim." 

Bibliography 

Adams, Richard P. "Whitman's 'Lilacs' and the Tradition of Pastoral Elegy." PMLA 72 (1957): 479-487. 

Betts, William W., Jr., ed. Lincoln and the Poets. n.p.: U of Pittsburgh P, 1965. 

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961-1977. 

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965. 

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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