"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Poetry: "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" by Walt Whitman

Today April 14th is, if I did my arithmetic correctly, the 148th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  That factoid, coupled with Jeanette, my fellow blogger at J’s Café Nette, writing  about her lilac in a recent blog  made me think of the poem I always think of this time of year, Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”  Normally the poem would come to me on its own, since I can’t help recall it when I see my mother’s dwarf lilac in bloom.  However this year it seems to be blooming late up here.  It’s been a cool spring and things are behind.  No perfuming blossoms yet, so the poem was out of mind until Jeanette mentioned it.

You may know that the poem was written on the occasion of Lincoln’s assassination .  Whitman had developed a profound love of Lincoln since he caught a glimpse of him in Washington in 1861, totally gave of himself during the Civil War as a nurse to aid the wounded Union soldiers, and when Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 suffered a most profound despair.  He wrote this poem as an elegy for the fallen leader.

 The poem is nearly nine pages long in my Leaves of Grass (Whitman’s opus of all his poetry) edition, so I’m not going to quote the entire piece.  I’ll highlight the major moments and try to give you an appreciation of its greatness.  But you can read the entire poem at my favorite poetry site, PoetryFoundation. 

 Whitman is not a difficult poet to comprehend.  For the most part he tells you exactly what he means to convey.  His symbols are usually not multifaceted.  His genius is in his language, rhythm, and imagery.  The poem is divided into 16 stanzas with the usual Whitman free verse of irregular meter and irregular line length.  Whitman is not big on formality.  Let’s start with the first stanza.


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, 5
And thought of him I love.
An elegy is a poem of a fallen hero with an appeal for eternal remembrance.  Lincoln is the great star Whitman is quite explicit about it in the second stanza, and lilacs will be eternally returning at the same time of year in remembrance.  Throughout the poem there is a religious undertone that suggests Lincoln to be a Christ-figure whose sacrificial death brings new life to the nation.  And so Whitman collects the bloom, the star, and his love into a “trinity.” 


Let’s look at the next three stanzas:



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! 10
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,

Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard, 15
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

In the swamp in secluded recesses,

A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush, 20
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).

In the second stanza, Whitman connects Lincoln to the star and his emotional connection.  In the third he fleshes out the lilac bush, pointing out the heart-shaped leaf, suggesting love, and ending with a very suggestive broken sprig.  In the fourth stanza he introduces a new character, a shy little bird singing.  From other Whitman poems, the little thrush is a stand-in for the poet himself, and even here it’s not so subtle.  The bird “sings by himself a song,” which echoes Whitman’s famous poem “Song of Myself.”

Stanzas five and six dramatizes the journey of Lincoln’s coffin from Washington to Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois, a procession across the nation which actually happened.  Whitman ends the procession with offering that sprig of lilac he broke to the coffin as people tend to throw flowers into an open grave.  In stanzas seven and eight Whitman consecrates the death as a sacred death, that Lincoln’s life and now death was connected to something beyond earth, divine providence.  That is why Whitman chooses the falling star to symbolize Lincoln.

Stanzas nine and ten he returns to the singing bird, wondering how he shall sing for the fallen man.  What Whitman decides on is to let the bird sing of the nation, all it’s varied elements.  In stanzas 11, 12, and 13 he sings of farms and hills and a flowing river, then to Manhattan with its spires, and then to swamps and prairies.  The song—the death song—is knitting the nation together, as the tragic death of a president can do. 

And then we come to what I think is the climatic stanza, fourteen.  Let me cite it all.



Now while I sat in the day and look’d forth,

In the close of the day with its light and the fields of spring, and the farmers preparing their crops, 110
In the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and forests,
In the heavenly aerial beauty (after the perturb’d winds and the storms),
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides, and I saw the ships how they sail’d,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor, 115
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages,
And the streets how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo, then and there,
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death. 120

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,

And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness, 125
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me,

The gray-brown bird I know receiv’d us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.
From deep secluded recesses, 130
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,

As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night,
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird. 135

Come lovely and soothing death,

Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome? 145
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Approach strong deliveress,

When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee, 150
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.

From me to thee glad serenades,

Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night. 155

The night in silence under many a star,

The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.

Here the land, the houses, the streets, the sea all come into the song of death, into “the sacred knowledge of death.”  Here while holding hands with his companions Whitman meets “the receiving night that talks not,” or in different words, the universal providence.  The word “companion” is nicely chosen too.  It was originally a religious word, its Latin origin “com pane,” with bread, or members of the Christian union of Christ’s breaking of bread.  The italics in the poem are the bird’s actual voice, and it’s a prayer almost in the form of St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Brother Sun.”  This little section is so beautiful: “Prais’d be the fathomless universe,/For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,/And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!

In stanza 15 the song alludes to the nation’s recent history of strife and war.  And finally let’s end with stanza 16 where by Lincoln’s death and through the rising birdsong the poet, and by implication, the nation now goes forward with heaven’s blessing.


Passing the visions, passing the night,

Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands,
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night, 190
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring. 195

I cease from my song for thee,

From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.

Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,

The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird, 200
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake, 205
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Whitman ends it with lilac, star, and bird, forever caught within his soul.  A truly inspired poem.


  1. I swear, poetry flummoxes me! I could no more have inferred or understood that than fly to the moon.

    1. One day I'll put together a primer on how to read poetry. It's really not as hard as it looks Jan. Just read it straight and don't worry about the line breaks.

  2. Sure wish I had had you y my side years ago when I had to study and explain Whitman's poetry. You are like human cliff notes..LOL.

    Seriously though, thanks for this post. It was great to once again read the work of Whitman.

    1. LOL, I'm better than Cliff Notes. You have to realize Sue that I've been a literature afficinado ever since my Freshman year in college when I was smitten with TS Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I remember that moment clearly. So it's been 33 years.