After printing Drum-Taps just after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Whitman knew immediately that he would have to revise or add to the book so that he could explore more deeply the significance of the loss of the president. He worked during the summer of 1865 to write what became his best-known poem, “O Captain! My Captain!,” in which he imagines a sailor processing the loss of his “captain,” the commander-in-chief of the ship of state, “fallen cold and dead” on “the deck.” But the poem he most fully devoted himself to was “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d.” He published both poems along with a handful of others in a supplement or “sequel” to Drum-Taps, which he bound into the back of the copies of Drum-Taps that he had held back from distribution when it was originally supposed to be issued back in April of 1865. He published the new book in October and entitled his sequel When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d and Other Pieces, using a specially designed font of type in which the very letters of the title are created out of splintered and broken staffs, indicating visually what the poem itself enacts—its creation out of shattered pieces. Pieces—the result of massive fragmentation, amputations, deaths beyond retrieval—were all that the people of America had left, and the hope, such as it was, was that someone would begin to compose something, make something, out of the broken pieces of what was once a unified whole, a Union. “Lilacs” is a poem about loss and death and the sense of the world coming to a stasis. Lincoln was assassinated in April. Whitman, who lived at the time in Washington, DC, was visiting his mother in New York, and he heard the news from a newsboy shouting it in the street. Standing up and walking out to his mother’s dooryard, he stood where the lilacs were blooming early that year, and, in the inhalation of his grief, a kind of bodily merger occurred: the horrifying news of Lincoln’s death was in that moment fused with the aroma of lilacs, a smell that until then had signaled for the poet new birth, hope, but now, in an unsettling synesthetic melding, lilacs would be forever associated with death and loss.
And yet we should note that the poem begins with the sound of hope buried in the diction—the ringing “-ing” rhyme of participial endings, indicating the desire to continue on: spring / returning / bring / blooming / drooping. What does not rhyme or ring with the recurring “-ing” in the opening lines of the poem is the “thought of him I love”—because now “ever-returning spring,” instead of bringing freshness and new beginnings, brings a mix of memory and desire, a “thought of him I love,” the one who is no more. How can spring ever again contain the promise of a new beginning, when its annual return will from now on insist on bringing instead the thought of the dead one who was loved, and the thought of the hundreds of thousands dead who fought for and against the Union that Lincoln stood for? The poem will gradually work its way to trying to restore the progressive and ongoing sense of the participles that begin the poem, even as the poet’s first act is to “break” a “sprig” of lilac to put on Lincoln’s passing coffin. Not only is the breaking of that sprig a breaking off of the life of that spring’s lilac blossoms, we realize too that the word “sprig” is itself a kind of broken “spring”—a spring that, minus the “n,” is now without life, without the sense of continuity and future that is built into the “-ing” forms of present participles (which themselves are words that store action, awaiting conjugation to bring that action into being). The poem wrestles, then, with conflicting senses: is this the spring that stops all springs, that ends renewal (a broken sprig), or will the “ever-returning spring,” by the sheer force of its cycling, eventually tease out hope again?
“Lilacs” may remind us of another famous American poem, written sixty years later, also in the aftermath of a bloody and catastrophic war that tested the resolve of the poet to continue writing poetry. By the time T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land in the 1920s, he had worked hard to distance himself from Whitman, calling his poetry “clap-trap” and finding Whitman himself a “pathetic creature.” And yet, Eliot made one striking exception: “When Whitman speaks of the lilacs,” Eliot said, “his theories and beliefs drop away like a needless pretext.” And we can indeed hear the impact Whitman’s lilacs had on Eliot when we recall the iconic opening lines of The Waste Land: “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory with desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” The direct echoes of Whitman are undeniable, not just in the way that April becomes cruel with its reminders of memory and desire, but in the same use of the insistent participles (breeding, mixing) that nearly rhyme with “spring” in the third line, except that “spring” is oddly out of place, buried in the penultimate position, not allowed to attach to the participles that hang at the ends of the lines, reaching and yearning for conjugation.
Both these poems, with their elegiac tones, never name the person being mourned. Most readers assumed Whitman was writing about Lincoln, but Whitman’s great elegy is in part remarkable because we never hear the name of “him I loved”: the loss is detached from specificity and bleeds out into a vaster, even more unnamable loss that eventually in the poem will yield “armies” of loss, “battle-corpses, myriads of them.” The subject of Eliot’s elegy is even more deeply buried: he had a secretive loving relationship with Jean Verdenal, a young medical officer in the First World War who was killed during the Gallipoli landing, which began in April of 1915, exactly fifty years after Lincoln’s assassination. In his one published memory of Verdenal, Eliot recalls their last meeting in Paris, and it is tinged with lilacs: “my own retrospect is touched by a sentimental sunset, the memory of a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac, a friend who was later (so far as I can tell) to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli.” Like Lincoln, Verdenal was shot in the head, and, like Lincoln’s death for Whitman, Verdenal’s death for Eliot reified the vast mass death of the war into a single beloved person, whose loss would forever mix memory and desire in the cruelty of ever-returning spring, and whose death left the world in pieces. Whitman’s title page for “Lilacs” uses broken pieces to compose the poem’s words, and Eliot’s poem ends with the poet “shoring these fragments against my ruins.” April is the cruelest month. . . .
WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the
I mourn'd…and yet shall mourn with ever-returning
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd! O the blank murk that hides the
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul!
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the
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
With its 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,
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 gifted to sing, thou would'st surely die.)
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes, and through old woods, (where lately the
violets peep'd from the ground, spotting the gray
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes—passing
the endless grass;
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its
shroud in the dark-brown fields uprising;
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the
With the pomp of the inloop'd flags, with the cities draped
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil'd
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of
With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces,
and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices
rising strong and solemn;
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour'd around
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where
amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells' perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes.
I give you my sprig of lilac.
(Nor for you, for one, alone;
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:
For fresh as the morning—thus would I chant a song for
you, O sane and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies;
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes:
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you, O death.)
O western orb, sailing the heaven!
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since
As we walk'd up and down in the dark blue so mystic,
As we walk'd in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell, as you bent to me night
As you droop'd from the sky low down, as if to my side,
(while the other stars all look'd on;)
As we wander'd together the solemn night, (for something
I know not what, kept me from sleep;)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west,
ere you went, how full you were of woe;
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze, in the cool
As I watch'd where you pass'd and was lost in the nether-
ward black of the night,
As my soul, in its trouble, dissatisfied, sank, as where you,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.
Sing on, there in the swamp!
O singer bashful and tender! I hear your notes—I hear
I hear—I come presently—I understand you;
But a moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain'd
The star, my comrade, departing, holds and detains me.
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that
And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?
Sea-winds, blown from east and west,
Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea,
till there on the prairies meeting:
These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,
I perfume the grave of him I love.
O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?
Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray-smoke
lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent,
sinking sun, burning, expanding the air;
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green
leaves of the trees prolific;
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river,
with a wind-dapple here and there;
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against
the sky, and shadows;
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the
workmen homeward returning.
Lo! body and soul! this land!
Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hur-
rying tides, and the ships;
The varied and ample land—the South and the North in
the light—Ohio's shores, and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies, cover'd with grass and
Lo! the most excellent sun, so calm and haughty;
The violet and purple morn, with just-felt breezes:
The gentle, soft-born, measureless light;
The miracle, spreading, bathing all—the fulfill'd noon;
The coming eve, delicious—the welcome night, and the
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.
Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird!
Sing from the swamps, the recesses—pour your chant from
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.
Sing on, dearest brother—warble your reedy song;
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.
O liquid, and free, and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer!
You only I hear……yet the star holds me, (but will soon
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.
Synesthesia, the mingling of sense perceptions at the heart of “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d,” is for certain artists an essential element of their work. Thus Proust tasted a madeleine, and a vanished world came flooding back to him, which he chronicled in the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time; Kandinsky assigned colors to particular notes of music, which governed how he painted; and composers like Liszt, Messiaen, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Sibelius saw colors when they composed. Art, literature, and music can be multi-sensory experiences, which engage the full range of the imagination, and the mysterious currents that carry one from the familiar to the strange depend to some extent upon the joining of different senses—which is why it is sometimes difficult to explain one’s response to poems like “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d.” Heartache summoned Whitman to his best writing, and with Lincoln’s assassination, which stood in his mind for all the needless deaths of the war, he recalls the fragrance of the lilac by the door to his mother’s house, a blooming perennial that each spring had heretofore signaled new life for him, its “every leaf a miracle.” Henceforth it would be a symbol of his bereavement.
How to transfigure such pain into poetry? In the third section, Whitman describes the lilac, its “heart-shaped leaves of rich green” (a phrase repeated three lines later), and the flowering sprig, the breaking of which forms the prelude to his introduction, in the next section, of a thrush warbling in “secluded recesses” of the swamp, a solitary gray-brown bird that chants “a song for you, O sane and sacred death.” The drab bird’s “reedy song” follows the coffin bearing Lincoln through the streets and lanes, cities and states, to his final resting place, accompanied by the dirges of his mourners; with sea-winds blowing from east and west to meet in the prairie and “the breath of my chant,” the poet will “perfume the grave of him I love.” This song, the evening star “sailing the heaven,” and the “mastering odor” of lilacs hold him in a fierce embrace: a “trinity sure,” which is designed to rival the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Researchers understand that trauma can live on in the body and memory long after the event—which may explain the prevalence of war literature the world over: poets and journalists, soldiers and survivors—they reckon up the costs of war, physical, psychic, and spiritual. Just as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is condemned to tell the story of the tragedy he set in motion with his thoughtless act, killing the albatross that followed his ship across the sea, so the sight or smell of lilacs triggers Whitman’s memory of the shock he experienced at the news of Lincoln’s death. The lilac sprig he imagines placing on the coffin is a token of his elegy, the thrush’s song, and with that gesture we, too, linger, gazing at the star that fell too soon.
For Whitman, the death of Lincoln becomes entwined with the aroma of lilacs, with the low-hanging Evening Star, and with the distant song of a hermit thrush. A smell, a sight, a sound. It is difficult to disentangle the sense impressions we may receive when we experience the horror of a deep loss. Think of a time in your own life when you have, for reasons you don’t understand, associated a seemingly unrelated sensation or memory with your being informed of a death or other tragic event. Write about this seeming dislocation until it begins to make sense. Is that process what Whitman went through in writing “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d”—writing until his seemingly unrelated trinity began to cohere as a unified three-in-one memory?
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