“When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” is a poem about the murder of Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865. Whitman uses this literature to publicly express his sorrow over the loss of this president (“Walt Whitman”). He went to great measures to indicate that the dead are not the sufferers, rather the ones who are still living. The poem begins by recognizing the death of Lincoln, and continues by following the coffin until its destination is reached. The symbolism in “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloomed” allows Walt Whitman to reveal the emotions attached to this tragic incident.
The first cycle of the poem focuses on Whitman’s grief over the loss of Abraham Lincoln. Whitman uses three symbols to represent important aspects of Lincoln’s death: the star, the lilac, and the bird (French). He begins mourning the loss of Lincoln by referring to him as the “western, fallen star” (Cummings). Imagery such as “black murk” and a “moody tearful night” are utilized to explain how defenseless he feels about the falling of this western star.
These quotes also explain the anger, grief, and torture that Whitman was feeling about all of the death that was occurring (Yongue). The lilacs in the poem are used to represent the annual return of spring, which symbolizes the resurrection of the dead. Even though death leads to rebirth through resurrection, Whitman explains that he will continue to mourn with every returning spring. The thought of Lincoln’s rebirth is not comforting to him at this point in the poem.
The bird is used as a symbol to emphasize the sweet freedom that comes as a result of death (Wildermuth). Without death in the world, there would be no possibility for resurrection to occur. Whitman’s explanation of the cycle of the seasons and the yearly reappearance of spring symbolizes the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This is a common theme in the poem because the murder of Abraham Lincoln took place near the time of year which Christ’s death and resurrection are celebrated.
The second cycle of the poem illustrates the long and sorrowful journey of the coffin through the city and country lands to the grave (French). Whitman uses a wide variety of scenery like the woods, lanes and streets, and apple orchards to symbolize that the coffin traveled through all parts of American life. Throughout this journey, a diverse selection of imagery, such as “cities draped in black” and “dim-lit churches and shuddering organs” are used to express the emotion of grief which was felt by all people. The bird’s song is a turning point for the poet, because it allows him to understand the president’s spiritual rebirth after his death.
Whitman puts a sprig of lilac on the coffins of Abraham Lincoln and the soldiers who died in the Civil War as his tribute to death and the rebirth of spirits (Cummings). This tribute acknowledges his recent belief that Abraham Lincoln was reborn after death and is in a better place now. However, even with this knowledge, the poet’s soul is troubled to know of the great loss of his president. This poem is not just directed at the death of Lincoln, but written about death as a part of life (French). Whitman makes this clear in section seven when he states, “Nor for you, for one, alone; Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring.”
The third cycle begins by Whitman wanting to sing and chant to give tribute for the loss of Lincoln’s soul. He discusses the wide variety of pictures on the president’s tomb, such as the river, hills, sky, leaves, and workmen. These pictures symbolize all of the scenes in the life of an American. Since these images are what sum up the American life, Whitman believes that they are owed to Abraham Lincoln for all of this hard work as President. All of these pictures also represent Lincoln’s future plans for the United States of America. During his time as president, Abraham Lincoln played a vital role in the Civil War and ending slavery in the United States. He wanted only what was best for his country and Whitman wants to honor him as a result of this.
The next section uses a daydream to discuss Lincoln and his immortality. Death is referred to as a “strong deliveress,” which means that it allows for the rebirth of the immortal. In “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d,” violence is an important theme which results in the large amount of death that occurs (Yongue). During this time, the bird is singing the Death Carol, which describes death as lovely and soothing. It is not a song of lament to sorrow over loss, but one of celebration since death brings rebirth (Wildermuth).
Symbolism, such as “the loving, floating ocean of thee,” is used to describe how death is a soothing part of life. It allows for the immortal to escape into another life after resurrection (French). Although death is soothing for the dead, Whitman believes that all living people suffer from it. He explains this thought through a vision with dead soldiers. They are not suffering, but families and friends are grieving over their loss. This symbolizes Whitman grieving over the loss of Lincoln.
“When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d is Walt Whitman’s poem and tribute to Abraham Lincoln after he was murdered on April 14, 1865. Although it begins with feelings of grief and pain, Whitman begins to understand the sweetness that follows death as the poem continues. The symbolism of the star, lilac, and the bird enable him to represent important parts of Lincoln’s death. This literary device also allows Whitman to accurately describe his feelings and how they evolved throughout the literature. Ultimately, he believes Abraham Lincoln to be an amazing president who had the best of intentions for the United States of America. As a result, he wrote this poem to honor this president and those who lost their lives while fighting for America in the Civil War.
- Poetry Foundation – “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
- JSTOR – “Whitman’s ‘Lilacs’ and Lincoln”
- Project Muse – “‘Close Encounters’: Representing Trauma in Steinbeck’s ‘The Black Curtain,’ Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,’ and Williams’s ‘To Elsie'”
- History.com – “Abraham Lincoln Assassination”