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Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is an elegiac poem in memory of Abraham Lincoln. The poem tracks the narrator waiting to lay a sprig of lilac on the president’s coffin, the physical journey that Lincoln’s coffin takes across the country, and, finally, a lone bird mourning far away from civilization. Specifically, the opening stanzas of the poem that follow the narrator and the stanzas concerning the thrush bird characterize the poem as an elegy through their use of classical elegiac conventions, such as references to nature, song, the apotheosis of the dead, and the transference of the narrator’s mourning to the entire world.
Throughout the poem, Whitman uses the traditional imagery and symbolism typically employed in an elegy poem. One component of elegiac imagery relies on an emphasis on nature or the pastoral, which is evident from the first line of the poem:
When lilacs last in the door-yard 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.
Whitman uses the image of colorful lilacs and spring, the season of new life, to juxtapose the premature death of Lincoln as well as to convey the speaker’s deep sadness to follow on each anniversary of the death. This reference to “ever-returning spring” also adds a somber tone by implying that although the human world may be in mourning, the natural world is disjointed from humanity and will always return to new life in spring regardless of the “the great star [that] early droop’d.”
The astrological symbolism or apotheosis of the dead is another common trait in elegy; Whitman uses both in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Throughout the poem, Whitman refers to Lincoln as a star several times:
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!
The use of the star to stand in for Lincoln is Whitman’s way of raising the fallen president up to the heavens, in an almost godlike manner. The imagery used to describe the fallen star consumed by darkness brings to mind an eclipse or the final moments of day when the sun finally sets; this imagery in connection with Lincoln is a sign of the speaker’s belief that Lincoln’s death was untimely and occurred too soon. The speaker’s choice of words also indicates that Lincoln was a sort of guiding star or light for America, and now that he is gone, the nation is plunged into temporary darkness at the end of the Civil War.
Whitman uses the thrush bird to symbolize nature’s mourning and as a comparison to the propriety of the narrator’s own mourning. He says of the bird, “Song of the bleeding throat! / Death’s outlet song of life — (for well, dear brother, I know / If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)” The bird mourns in a solitary swamp because he would die without the gift of song, not in the midst of civilization spurred by the death of Lincoln. The narrator recognizes and understands the thrush’s song, but he is not able to produce his own song for his fallen star:
But a moment I linger — for the lustrous star has detain’d me; / The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me. / O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved? / And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone? / And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?
The speaker with the lilac does not feel he can mourn for the fallen president that means so much to him as properly as the lone thrush in the swamp does effortlessly with its death song. Whitman enters a meta-elegiac territory when he has the narrator recognize his inability to properly mourn and feels the death of Lincoln has “detain’d” him; in other words, he cannot get over the death of the president and cannot even begin the process of mourning.
Overall, Whitman’s elegy to Lincoln stands out among his poems for its heavy use of the imagery of a classical genre, yet his questioning of elegy and of mourning itself makes “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” an innovative poem full of meaning. His use of symbolism is easily explicated, but the way Whitman uses the classical elegiac framework to challenge the genre itself adds a great deal of complexity to the grief that he felt at Lincoln’s assassination and a deeper level of meaning to be extracted from the text.
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