WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOM’D
WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOM’D : Read below our complete notes on the poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman. Our notes cover the background, summary, themes, and analysis of this poem.
WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOM’D
The poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was written by an American Poet Walt Whitman, in April 1865. It was published for the first time in Sequel to Drum-Taps the same year and was republished in the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass in 1865.
The first version of the poem was arranged into twenty-one strophes. Then some of its strophes were combined and when it was published in the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass in 1881, it had sixteen strophes, like today.
The poem is narrated in first-person narrative with an unknown narrator. It is a free verse following no metrical pattern. It consists of two hundred and six lines. It is a pastoral elegy, set in a rural background, lamenting the death of the American President Abraham Lincoln, though it does not mention his name.
This elegy consists of three poems that progress simultaneously. One poem is about the American President Abraham Lincoln’s Coffin on the way to its burial place. The second one stays with the poet, the sprig of Lilac and the drooping Star. The third poem is about a bird singing the song of death.
In the nineteenth century the American Continent was divided politically. Its Nothern States were free and the Southern states had prevalent slavery. The Southern States were fertile for cotton cultivation so these people would bring people from Africa and made them their slaves. They made their slaves work on the cotton farms which led to a Civil War from 1861 to 1865. This Civil War was for the abolishment of slavery.
The Southern States practised slavery while the Northern States were against it. Due to this Civil War, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery but John Wilkes Booth was against this act. He assassinated the American President on 14th of April 1865 when he was watching a play, Our American Cousins. The President was extremely wounded and as a result, he died the next day. His body was kept in the Capital till 20th of April 1865 and was then journeyed towards its burial place.
Abraham Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated. His Coffin was taken across North America. He was buried in Springfield Illinois in the Oak Ridge Cemetery.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was written in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as a lamentation on his death.
WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOOR-YARD BLOOM’D SUMMARY
The poem begins with the narrator saying that it is the spring season and the lilacs in the dooryard bloom. The great western star shines in the darkness while he mourns over the death of “someone he loves”. He says that this spring season, the lilacs and the western star will always remind him of the person he loves.
The narrator talks about the mournful night when he feels himself helpless in front of nature and death. He says that a dark mist surrounds the western star so its shine does not reach him anymore. Some cruel and powerful hands hold him and he is helpless to do anything. A thick cloud surrounds him and does not set him free.
Near the fence, in the dooryard of the old farm-house is a bush of lilacs. The lilacs have green heart-shaped leaves, pointed flowers and a very strong pleasant smell. He breaks a twig of lilac from the bush.
The narrator sees a gray-brown bird singing alone, in a secluded swamp. Its song allows him to think about the connection between humans and nature. It also makes him realise the coming of death just like the changing seasons. The song of the bird acts as a mystical awakening for the narrator.
Here the journey of the Coffin of the American President is explained. It travels through the streets, lanes, cities, rivers, farms and fields. The dead body is taken through the country by day- night journey to its burial place.
As the Coffin is taken to its burial place through streets with a day-night journey, a dark cloud of grief surrounds the land. Everyone is dressed in black mourning dress. Flags are lowered as a symbol of grief. Everyone is grieved by the death of their President. And as the Coffin progresses through the cities, the narrator places his twig of Lilac on the coffin. His private grief is now a public grief that he shares with his nation.
This poem is not only a mourning poem but a song of death. The narrator says that he will offer Lilac not only to the Coffin of his beloved President but for all the dead people who died in the American Civil War. He offers all the fresh flowers to all the dead men as a tribute.
He then addresses the shining western star and says that he now realizes what the star wanted to tell him a month ago. At night when he was unable to sleep, he was wandering under the sky when he saw the star with a reflection of sorrow because he knew the country was going to face a great loss. It actually wanted to foretell him the death of Abraham Lincoln. As the night advanced the star disappeared but the narrator could not understand what it wanted to convey to him. Now he has realized what the star wanted to tell him.
He again hears the song of the bird and asks the bird to sing on. He listens to its song and understands it yet his attention is held by the star and the feelings of sorrow surround him. He is unable to overcome his grief while the bird wants to explain to him the meaning of death. It wants to tell him that life is a cyclic process and death is a part of it.
The narrator then wonders what tribute he should present to the dead one he loves. He wonders with what honour should he decorate the grave of the dead person he loves. He decides to combine the winds that come from sea and blow from east to west with the breath of his song. That would be an appropriate perfume for the President’s grave.
The narrator wonders what should he hang in the walls of the grave. What type of pictures should be hanged on the walls and then he decides to hang pictures from all over the country. There should be pictures of rural landscapes with natural scenery like hills, leaves and sky. The photographs of cities with busy industrial life and workmen should be hanged on the walls of the grave.
There should also be pictures of Manhattan spires, Ohio’s beautiful landscapes and its rivers and shores. He wants to show the people that Abraham Lincoln represented America and its people.
The narrator is again attracted by the song of Hermit thrush. He asks it to continue its sweet song from the silent swamp. The song is expressive of the Poet’s emotions and grief. He says that it is a sorrowful song about humans. He listens to it but is again held back by the star and the odor of lilacs.
The narrator sits alone observing land and natural scenery when he sees a dark cloud enveloping everything. It made him think about death. He goes to the bird that sings the song of death. It describes death as lovely and soothing.
The narrator realizes the importance of life and death. He retreats to the swamp with the knowledge and thoughts of death. The song of the bird teaches him that life is a continuity. A person who is born has to die. He thinks about all the dead people. He therefore glorifies and welcomes death while singing the song of death.
The narrator imagines armies and warriors and then he concludes that the dead ones are more happy than the living ones. All the sorrows and sufferings are for the living and not for the dead, they only lie in rest and peace.
The Coffin has finally reached its burial place. As the Coffin passes, the narrator salutes and offers tribute to it. The lilacs, the star and the bird have enchanted his soul. He, along with them, bid farewell to Abraham Lincoln, whom he loved so much. He realizes that life is a cyclic thing. He begins with the star, goes to the bird and returns to the star, understanding more about death. It seems no more awful to him but a part of the natural cycle.
THEMES IN THE POEM
The theme of grief and sorrow is highlighted throughout the poem. The narrator who does not understand the concept of death laments the death of his beloved President, Abraham Lincoln and all the soldiers who died in the American Civil War.
The poet expresses his grief and mourns over the death of his loved one. He uses such language that emphasizes his sentiments and emotions of sadness but at the end he overcomes his grief and understands death.
ACCEPTANCE OF DEATH
The narrator fears death and is unable to accept the reality of Abraham Lincoln’s death. He mourns over his death throughout the poem and feels helpless to overcome his grief. After listening to the song of the hermit thrush, the poet gets knowledge about death and accepts it.
He comes to know that death, which seemed strange and awful to him, is a part of the cyclic process of life. It is a natural phenomenon and every human being has to taste it. When he accepts death, it no more seems awful but soothing and easeful to him.
The narrator who fears death, in the beginning, understands it, after listening to the song of the bird. The song of the bird teaches him that life is a cyclic process and those who are born have to die. The lilacs that bloom in the dooryard also give him an idea of rebirth. He understands that all the living things that are once born will die. Their souls will become free and they will start a new life after death.
CERTAINTY OF DEATH
The narrator, though fears death, in the beginning, understands it and becomes certain about it. He comes to know that all the living beings have to die one day and no one can escape it. Death is a reality of life. He also says that those who are dead are at more peace than the living ones. These thoughts give him soothing feelings.
LITERARY ANALYSIS OF “WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOM’D”
The poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is written after the death of Abraham Lincoln though not mentioning his name, it laments on his death. It is a pastoral elegy having a rural setting and the American President Abraham Lincoln, idealized as a shepherd, who united and represented America and its people.
It is a long poem of two hundred and six lines with no fixed metrical pattern. The lines of the poem have unequal length and different number of syllables. It consists of sixteen strophes, each one of them having a different number of lines. It does not have an end rhyme but has an internal rhyme which gives it a musicality. It consists of three sub-poems progressing simultaneously.
One poem stays with the narrator, the drooping star and the sprig of Lilac, the other one progresses with the coffin of Abraham Lincoln, through North America, towards its grave and the third one moves with the song of the Hermit thrush.
The poem is narrated in the first-person narrative with an unknown speaker. It laments the death of Abraham Lincoln in particular and the death of all the soldiers who died in the American Civil War in common.
This elegy is a sorrowful expression of the poet’s emotions and his grief on the death of Abraham Lincoln. In the beginning, he is unable to understand death. He fears death and is unable to come out of the grief of Lincoln’s death but as the poem progresses, he accepts death and realizes its importance in the cyclic process of life.
The poem begins with a rural setting having a bush of lilacs blooming in the dooryard of an old farm-house. The narrator mourns the death of the one he loves. He plucks a sprig of Lilac in order to place it on the Coffin of the dead one but then he remembers all the dead soldiers who died in the American Civil War and his personal and private grief becomes impersonal and public.
The poem progresses beautifully, showing the journey of the Coffin across the country to its burial place. The poet also takes a journey from fear of death towards certainty after hearing the song of the bird. His attention swings between the drooping star and the singing bird throughout the poem.
He does not want to listen to the bird singing the song of death because he is detained by the star but then he is attracted to the song of hermit thrush and he listens to it. It makes him understand the concept of death that gives him soothing feelings and comforts him.
Elegies traditionally end in reconciliation between the poet and death, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d also end this way.
The poem has all characteristics of a pastoral elegy. It has a rural setting and natural imagery. Just like pastoral elegies, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d has Abraham Lincoln as the idealized shepherd who had united the people of America. It also includes the admiration of the deceased person and expresses great grief over his death. It expresses meditation on death and at last the acceptance of it.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d has a rural setting. The time is the month of April. The dooryard of an old farm-house is shown. There is a bush having lilacs blooming on it. The poem also shows an image of the North American landscapes when the Coffin of Abraham Lincoln is taken to its burial place.
Since it is an elegy, the tone of the poem is lamenting and sad. The speaker mourns the death of a loved one in particular and of the soldiers died in the American Civil War in common. The grief and sentiments of the speaker can be felt by the reader through the sad tone of the poem.
The tone changes from formal at the beginning of the poem to less formal at the end.
The conflict which the speaker faces in the poem is internal. He is confused about the concept of death so he fights his own confusion. The beginning of the poem, the narrator fears death and is unable to understand it but in the end, he understands and accepts death.
POINT OF VIEW
The poem has a point of view of the first-person narrative. The narrator narrates what he feels about the death of Abraham Lincoln. He is grieved and sad so the reader also feels what the speaker is going through.
THE DROOPING STAR
“And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night”
The drooping star in the western sky, actually the planet Venus, appears time and again in the poem. This shining star actually represents the American President Abraham Lincoln and its disappearance symbolizes the death of him.
THE BLOOMING LILACS
The blooming Lilacs in the dooryard of the old farm-house that the narrator plucks in order to place it on the coffin of Abraham Lincoln, represents the grief that the speaker feels after hearing the news of Abraham Lincoln’s death. The sprig of Lilac is a sign of mourning, that the speaker shares with his nationals, over the death of their beloved President.
THE HERMIT THRUSH
Hermit thrush is a North American bird that normally sings, after the sundown, in secluded areas. It was a common bird in that area, that is why the poet has used it as a symbol in his poem. The hermit thrush singing a song of death with a “bleeding throat” is a sign of spirituality.
It is a source of expression of the narrator’s emotions. It teaches the concept of death to the narrator. It makes him understand that life and death are interconnected and he who is born has to die one day. This bird is a source of acceptance of death for the narrator.
Strong imagery is used in the eleventh stanza of the poem. In this stanza the poet wonders which type of pictures should he hang on the walls of the grave of Abraham Lincoln. Then he decides to hang the pictures of all types of landscapes of America.
He explains that the pictures should be of farms, springs, rivers, hills and cities. There should also be photographs of all scenes of life, workshops and workmen going back towards homes. This whole detail creates a clear image in the mind of the reader.
“I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring” (line 3)
Spring represents life and is a symbol of rebirth but ironically, it has become a sign of death for the poet. It will remind him of the death of the one he loves.
“Night and days journeys a coffin”
The above line alludes to the Coffin of Abraham Lincoln when it was taken across the country to its burial place.
“And the great star early droop’d in the western sky” (line 2)
In the above line, Abraham Lincoln is represented as a great shining star.
“Dark mother, always gliding near with soft feet” (line 144)
Here death is compared with a mother.
This is the use of contrasting concepts in a line.
“Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on the prairies meeting,
This technique is used to address someone.
The second stanza of the poem uses this technique where the poet addresses the night, the star, the fate that holds him helpless and the cloud of sadness that surrounds him.
The lines of the second stanza show the repetition of ‘O’ to address several things at a time. It strengthens the effect of the narrator’s emotions on the reader.
It is the repetition of the same word at the beginning of the lines of a stanza. The eighth stanza has the word “as” repeated at the beginning of its lines. The poet uses it for uniformity and to emphasize his point.
It is the repetition of the same word at the end of each sentence.
“Oh what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls?
“Ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring” (line 4)
“till there on the prairies meeting (line 76)
“Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes (line 82)
Since the poem is a free verse having no end rhyme so the poet has used internal rhyme in order to add rhythm and musicality to the poem, as shown in the above lines.
The poem consists of three poems that progress parallel to each other. For example the first, second and third stanzas of the poem stays with the narrator, the Lilacs and the drooping Star. The fourth stanza is about a bird singing the song of death.
The fifth stanza is about the progress of Abraham Lincoln’s Coffin through the country. The author stays with the Lilacs and the drooping Star, he listens to the song of the bird and he imagines the Coffin of Abraham Lincoln to be taken towards its burial place. All this happens at a time and this simultaneity causes all the three poems to move together.
The pattern of parallelism is adapted by the poet in order to create cohesion among the three poems and to keep the reader moving with himself and not to lose connection with the poetry.
This is the technique of inversion of word order.
“A sprig with its flower I break.”
The normal order of the above line is “I break the flower with its sprig.”
It is the use of archaic words in literature that are outdated and no longer in use. Some authors use them to imitate the olden style in literature.
“If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou woulds’t surely die”
In the above line from the poem, “thou” is the archaic form of “you”, “wast” is the archaic form of “was”, and “woulds’t” is the older form of “would”. They give a classical touch to the piece of literature.
It is a repetition of the same consonant sound in the first syllable of words in a line.
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” (line 1)
“In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings (line 12)
It is repetition of the same consonant sound in the middle or end of words in a line.
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d“
It is the repetition of the same vowel sound in words in a line.
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”
It is the omission of sounds within the words.
bloom’d” (line 1)
droop’d (line 2)
Mourn’d (line 3)
METER AND RHYME SCHEME
Since the poem is a free verse, it does not follow any particular metrical pattern. Some of its stanzas have a fewer number of lines while some have as many as fifty-three. Some of its lines have seven syllables while others have up to twenty syllables.
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