By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ is one of the most famous poems by the American poet, Walt Whitman (1819-92). Across 206 lines of innovative free verse, Whitman offers an elegy for Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated shortly before Whitman wrote the poem. You can read ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
Whitman’s title, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’, refers to the moment he learned that President Abraham Lincoln had died, in April 1865. At the time, Whitman was visiting his mother and brother at his mother’s home in New York; he stepped out the door and observed that the lilacs were blooming. This appears to have been the starting-point for Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, although he didn’t actually complete the poem until some months later (more of which below).
The poem’s structure changed slightly over time. The final version is divided into 16 sections, although originally it had 21; Whitman was known for revising his work after its initial publication, but the version we now read (in most editions) is the 1881 one.
Let’s take a closer look at the language and imagery of ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’. We won’t analyse every single line – it’s a long poem, at over 200 lines – but instead we’ll pick up on some of the key passages:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Whitman begins the poem by asserting that he mourns for the President (referred to only as ‘him’), whom he admired, and that he will continue to mourn for him. Whitman likens Lincoln to a star falling or dropping ‘early’ (because Lincoln died before his time) out of the western sky (with ‘western’ here referring both to the sky where the sun sets, and the western world of which America is a part).
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
Whitman continues to apostrophise Lincoln as a star that has fallen. (‘Apostrophe’ is a rhetorical device whereby someone dead or absent is addressed: here, Abraham Lincoln.) Whitman makes use of much dark and bleak imagery to convey his grief at Lincoln’s assassination, referring to ‘shades of night’ (i.e. shadows of night), ‘black murk’, and a ‘harsh surrounding cloud’ that binds and stifles the poet’s soul. His grief is also like hands holding him down, making him ‘powerless’.
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)
The hermit thrush is a staple of pastoral verse. Whitman reminds us that it is spring, and songbirds are singing; but there’s a touch of pathetic fallacy to the ‘solitary’ and ‘secluded’ bird singing a song at such a mournful time for the poet.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing
Section 6 of the poem begins with Whitman saluting the coffin that carries the body of Lincoln to rest, as the whole nation mourns. This was true of the public outcry of grief following Lincoln’s assassination. (And ‘crape-veil’d women’ prefigures Auden’s famous lines about putting crepe veils round the necks of the ‘public doves’ in his famous elegy.)
As the rest of the poem develops, it becomes clear that ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ is, in some ways, no ordinary elegy. One of the most remarkable things about ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ is that, although it is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln, the poem never mentions Lincoln by name.
Lincoln is implied throughout the poem rather than overtly mentioned. Yet this need not surprise us: Milton’s celebrated elegy ‘Lycidas’, for the young poet Edward King, doesn’t refer to King by name in the actual poem, instead giving him the pastoral name of ‘Lycidas’.
And although it may seem unconventional in its form (Whitman was a pioneer of free verse), Whitman’s poem is, when analysed from one perspective, a conventional pastoral elegy. However, although Whitman weaves in a number of the trappings of conventional elegy, the poem seems to want to slip free of the bonds of such categorisation, much as Whitman’s free verse wants to escape from the narrow restrictions of conventional metre.
It is at once both an elegy mourning Abraham Lincoln and a poem about much wider mourning – or, even, the inability to mourn because things have become too overwhelming. The assassination of Lincoln came towards the end of the American Civil War, during which conflict many families would end up mourning lost loved ones.
For this reason – that ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ is a much broader and more ambitious poem than the label ‘elegy for Lincoln’ might suggest – some poets and critics have sought to describe the poem in other ways. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), for instance, called the poem a ‘nocturne’ – a poem for the night.
What’s more, although Whitman composed the poem with the assassination of Lincoln firmly in mind, he didn’t start writing the poem in earnest until several months after Lincoln’s death (although he started keeping notes as soon as the day after).
This may explain why T.S. Eliot begins The Waste Land with the words “April is the cruellest month breeding lilacs out of the dull ground”. One of the themes of Eliot’s poem is the destruction and discrediting of authority figures – both traditional icons and parental figures. Abe Lincoln represents both traditional and parental authority.