"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd- is an elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, though it never mentions the president by name. Like most elegies, it develops from the personal (the death of Lincoln and the poet's grief) to the impersonal (the death of "all of you" and death itself); from an intense feeling of grief to the thought of reconciliation. The poem, which is one of the finest Whitman ever wrote, is a dramatization of this feeling of loss. This elegy is grander and more touching than Whitman's other two elegies on Lincoln's death, "0 Captain! My Captain!" and "Hush'd Be the Camps To-day." The form is elegiac but also contains elements found in operatic music, such as the aria and recitative. The song of the hermit thrush, for example, is an "aria."
Abraham Lincoln was shot in Washington, D.C., by Booth on April 14, 1865, and died the following day. The body was sent by train from Washington to Springfield, Illinois. As it crossed the continent, it was saluted by the people of America. Whitman has not only men and women but even natural objects saluting the dead man.
The first cycle of the poem, comprising sections 1-4, presents the setting in clear perspective. As spring returns, the lilacs blossom, and the planet Venus "nearly dropp'd in the western sky," the poet mourns the loss "of him I love." He mourns the "powerful western fallen star" now covered by "black murk" in the "tearful night," and he is "powerless" and "helpless" because the cloud around him "will not free my soul." He observes a lilac bush, is deeply affected by its perfume, and believes that "every leaf [is] a miracle." He breaks off a small branch with "heart-shaped Leaves." A shy, solitary thrush, like a secluded hermit, sings a song which is an expression of its inmost grief. It sings "death's outlet song of life."
This first section of the poem introduces the three principal symbols of the poem — the lilac, the star, and the bird. They are woven into a poetic and dramatic pattern. The meaning of Whitman's symbols is neither fixed nor constant. The star, Venus, is identified with Lincoln, generally, but it also represents the poet's grief for the dead. Lilacs, which are associated with everreturning spring, are a symbol of resurrection, while its heartshaped Leaves symbolize love. The purple color of the lilac, indicating the passion of the Crucifixion, is highly suggestive of the violence of Lincoln's death. The bird is the symbol of reconciliation with death and its song is the soul's voice. "Death's outlet song of life" means that out of death will come renewed life. Death is described as a "dark mother" or a "strong deliveress," which suggests that it is a necessary process for rebirth. The emotional drama in the poem is built around this symbolic framework. The continual recurrence of the spring season symbolizes the cycle of life and death and rebirth. The words "ever-returning spring," which occur in line 3 and are repeated in line 4, emphasize the idea of rebirth and resurrection. The date of Lincoln's assassination coincided with Easter, the time of Christ's resurrection. These two elements provide the setting to the poem in time and space.
The second stanza of the poem describes the poet's intense grief for the dead. Each line begins with "O," an exclamation which is like the shape of a mouth open in woe.
The second cycle of the poem comprises sections 5-9. It describes the journey of the coffin through natural scenery and industrial cities, both representing facets of American life. The thrush's song in section 4 is a prelude to the journey of the coffin which will pass "over the breast of the spring" through cities, woods, wheat fields, and orchards. But "in the midst of life we are in death," as it says in the Book of Common Prayer, and now the cities are "draped in black" and the states, like "crape-veil'd women," mourn and salute the dead. Somber faces, solemn voices, and mournful dirges mark the journey across the American continent.
To the dead man, the poet offers "my sprig of lilac," his obituary tribute. The poet brings fresh blossoms not for Lincoln alone, but for all men. He chants a song "for you 0 sane and sacred death" and offers flowers to "the coffins all of you 0 death."
The poet now addresses the star shining in the western sky: "Now I know what you must have meant." Last month the star seemed as if it "had something to tell" the poet. Whitman imagines that the star was full of woe "as the night advanced" until it vanished "in the netherward black of the night." Whitman calls upon the bird to continue singing. Yet the poet momentarily lingers on, held by the evening star, "my departing comrade."
The symbols are retained throughout this section. The poet bestows, as a mark of affection, a sprig of lilac on the coffin. The association of death with an object of growing life is significant. The star confides in the poet — a heavenly body identifies itself with an earthly being. The star is identified with Lincoln, and the poet is still under the influence of his personal grief for the dead body of Lincoln, and not yet able to perceive the spiritual existence of Lincoln after death. The song of the hermit thrush finally makes the poet aware of the deathless and the spiritual existence of Lincoln.
In the third cycle of the poem, sections 10-13, the poet wonders how he shall sing "for the large sweet soul that has gone." How shall he compose his tribute for the "dead one there I loved"? With his poem he wishes to "perfume the grave of him I love." The pictures on the dead president's tomb, he says, should be of spring and sun and Leaves, a river, hills, and the sky, the city dense with dwellings, and people at work — in short, "all the scenes of life." The "body and soul" of America will be in them, the beauties of Manhattan spires as well as the shores of the Ohio and the Missouri rivers — all "the varied and ample land." The "gray-brown bird" is singing "from the swamps" its "loud human song" of woe. The song has a liberating effect on the poet's soul, although the star still holds him, as does the mastering odor" of the lilac.
In this cycle the description of natural objects and phenomena indicates the breadth of Lincoln's vision, and the "purple" dawn, "delicious" eve, and "welcome" night suggest the continuous, endless cycle of the day, which, in turn, symbolizes Lincoln's immortality.
Sections 14-16 comprise a restatement of the earlier themes and symbols of the poem in a perspective of immortality. The poet remembers that one day while he sat in the peaceful but "unconscious scenery of my land," a cloud with a "long black trail" appeared and enveloped everything. Suddenly he "knew death." He walked between "the knowledge of death" and "the thought of death." He fled to the bird, who sang "the carol of death." The song of the thrush follows this passage. It praises death, which it describes as "lovely," "soothing," and "delicate." The "fathomless universe" is adored "for life and joy" and "sweet love." Death is described as a "dark mother always gliding near with soft feet." To her, the bird sings a song of "fullest welcome." Death is a "strong deliveress" to whom "the body gratefully" nestles.
The thrush's song is the spiritual ally of the poet. As the bird sings, the poet sees a vision: "And I saw askant the armies." He sees "battle-corpses" and the "debris of all the slain soldiers." These dead soldiers are happy in their resting places, but their parents and relatives continue to suffer because they have lost them. The suffering is not of the dead, but of the living.
The coffin has now reached the end of its journey. It passes the visions," the "song of the hermit bird," and the "tallying song" of the poet's soul. "Death's outlet song" is heard, "sinking and fainting," and yet bursting with joy. The joyful psalm fills the earth and heaven. As the coffin passes him, the poet salutes it, reminding himself that the lilac blooming in the dooryard will return each spring. The coffin has reached its resting place in "the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim." The star, the bird, and the lilac join with the poet as he bids goodbye to Lincoln, his "comrade, the dead I loved so well."
The poet's realization of immortality through the emotional conflict of personal loss is the principal theme of this great poem, which is a symbolistic dramatization of the poet's grief and his ultimate reconciliation with the truths of life and death.