When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd by Walt Whitman: Summary and Analysis

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd is an elegy in free verse divided into sixteen numbered sections. Written shortly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the poem expresses both Walt Whitman's grief and his effort to incorporate the president's death into an understanding of the universal cycle of life and death.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The first two sections are devoted to lamentation, to the poet's sense that he will never be able to overcome his despair over the loss of the one he loved, and to the premonition of the catastrophe he had experienced in his observation of the drooping western star. Nature itself seems obliterated by the "black mark" hiding the star. In section 3, the poet shifts his attention to the lilac bush blooming in the dooryard. The tall lilac bush, with its heart-shaped leaves, is a natural symbol of the human heart and its capacity to mourn but also of its capacity to renew itself, as the lilac bush is renewed each spring.

The flower's powerful scent stirs the poet's memory of the continual cycles of nature and stimulates both sadness and delight, which he expresses in breaking off a sprig of lilac in tribute to and memory of Lincoln. Section 4 introduces the images of the solitary warbling thrush, which the poet later associates (in section 10) with its own warbling for the dead. Not only is grief natural, it is also what unites human beings and nature, and it is what allows the poet to see in the cycle of the seasons a reason for the coming of death. Section 5 and 6 describe the procession of Lincoln's coffin, the spectacle of a whole society mourning its loss and acknowledging the presence of death, an inescapable fact that leads the poet (in sections 7 through 14) to merge his individual sorrow with that of society and with the evidence that nature presents of birth, growth and death. Section 14 intensifies the poet's identification with death; he creates a lyric of welcome to "delicate death," calling it a "dark mother," a "strong delivers" from the struggle of existence, a peaceful release into the elements of the universe. Section 15 takes this more assured feeling about death and suggests that the horrible suffering of the Civil War battlefields, the grief of mothers and children of those who were slain, has become transformed into a vision of men at rest, enjoying relief from the agony associated with the memories of the living. Summing up, in section 16 his visions of the lilac blooming in the dooryard, the reciprocal song of the poet and thrush, and the governing image of the drooping western star, the poet has found a way both to contain his anguish and to find its expression in the natural and human elements he has described: "Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul, / there in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim."

Because Whitman feels so strongly that human grief must be understood as part of the recurrent cycle of nature, of the change and the return of the seasons, he relies on the simplest of all devices: repetition. Thus the lines of the first section are repeated in several sections, especially at the end of the poem, which focuses on the images of lilac and stars and on the bird's song, which echoes an evokes the poet's own song. Indeed the poem has an echoing effect, as if the poet's first choice of words in sections 1 through 4 must be given similar answering words in subsequent sections.

In another kind of repetition, the poet takes a word such as "warble" and applies it both to the bird and to himself, making the word stand for the identity between him and nature. Similarly, his precise observation of the "delicate-color'd blossoms" of the lilac to Lincoln, in other words, signifies the poet's understanding of this individual instance of death, which then becomes linked to his expanded awareness (later in the poem) of how all death is figured in Lincoln's loss.

What often seems to be merely reiteration of detail-as in the poet's description (in section 13) of the thrush singing in the swamps and out of the dusk, the cedar, and the pines-is repeated at the very end of the poem, suggesting that what the poet observes in nature is what he becomes; it is all "twined" together with his nature as a poet. Only by the repetition of images does the poet gather his data, so to speak, his rich, deep absorption of the meaning of the universe. This absorption is first signaled to him by the drooping star, which, he implies (several times in the poem), provides a clue and is itself a marker-as are the poem's repeated words-of the necessity, indeed the desirability, of death. Consequently, the poet makes of death a common, even a comfortable experience rather than the aberrant, shocking event presented in the first section.

By the device of repetition, the poet accustoms himself to the manifold manifestations of death, Each recurrence of images such as the "delicious" coming of evening and the "mastering odor" of the lilac builds up a body of sensuous experience, of sight and smell, that in itself excites a desire for repetition, a longing to see and smell the lilacs bloom again; it also imparts a realization that this very joy cannot be attained without a participation in the rites of death.

An outstanding composition of the elegy has intensified the musicality in the poem in order to equate with the mentioned bird's melody. Though apparently prosaic, the poem has not lost even a single poetic harm, it is not at all less rhythmical than a well styled metrical poem. A lively description of which nature is a source of life, energy and happiness is vividly described in this poem. Symbols and images have been amply used in the poem. Like, bird, drooping star, moon, night stand as remarkable symbols.

Lilac, bird and moon are the symbols of freedom, happiness and beauty while the cloud, drooping star and night are the symbols of end and agony. However, Whitman has perpetuated his philosophy of eternity and organicity by treating death as an important phenomenon and as a mother to be welcomed and respected. He succeeds in converting the whole sorrowful moment into something good, inevitable and ceremonious.

This is of course a good tribute to the departed soul and an inspiring piece of the bereaved American for the unity and vigor in the days ahead, though the vision of life and death has been presented as universal.

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Shrestha, Roma. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd by Walt Whitman: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 19 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/when-lilacs-last-in-the-dooryard-bloom.html.