When Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloom’d: Summary & Analysis

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      Introduction. When Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloom’d, published in 1865 under the section titled Drum-Taps in Leaves of Grass. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed is an elegy mourning the death of Abraham Lincoln. Following the convention of elegies, the poet does not mention the dead man by name. He begins with an expression of impassioned grief and moves on to a philosophical acceptance of death. Personal grief is universalized.

      Summary. The poem When Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloom’d, begins with the expression of intense personal grief of death. Section 1 states the theme and introduces the symbols of spring, lilacs and evening star. Spring brings the “Trinity” to the poet’s mind, the trinity being the lilacs, the evening star low in the western sky and the memory of Lincoln (who was shot dead in Spring).

      Section 2 is an expression of the poet’s impassioned grief. The gloom seems overwhelming. Section 3 develops the lilac symbol further with the poet plucking a sprig of this spring flower growing in an old farm dooryard. Section 4 introduces the hermit thrush, whose song the poet hears. It is a shy hidden bird which seems to sing “Death’s outlet song of life”

      Sections 5 and 6 describe the journey of the assassinated President’s coffin over country and through cities to its final destination. The poet offers his sprig of lilac to the coffin as it passes.

      In Section 7, the poet associates Lincoln’s death in particular with Death in general by saying that he would offer flowers not only on Lincoln’s coffin but on all coffins. He would write a song for “sane and sacred death”. In Section 8, the poet tells of how one month before Lincoln’s death the western star “drooped from the sky” and appeared to be telling something he could not then understand. He now realizes that it was a forewarning of the tragedy. In Section 9, the poet again hears the call of the hermit thrush, but he is unable as yet to respond fully to its song.

      Sections 10, 11 and 12 express the poet’s sense of insufficiency about how to react to the death of the beloved hero - what to sing, what perfume to sprinkle on his grave. He comes to the decision that the best perfume would be the sea winds blowing from east and west combined with the breath of his song. The pictures to adorn the grave should be of “growing spring and farms and homes,” of sunlight, sweet fresh herbage, rivers and hills, the city scenes and workshops, the workman returning home.

      Section 13 once again goes back to the hermit thrush. The poet calls upon the bird to go on singing from the swamp and prickly bushes. But still the poet is unable to respond fully to it, being, as he is, held back by the “mastering odor” of the lilac and the dropping western star-both associated here with grief.

      It is in Section 14 that the poet realizes the universality of death, understands that a cloud, “the long black trail”, envelops the nation and “enveloping me with the rest”. He flees into the “shadowy cedars and ghostly pines” in order to listen to the bird. He can now fully respond to the song which, he realizes, expresses the “knowledge of death”. The poet is thus flanked by the “thought of death” and the “knowledge of death” the former signifying the grief over the death of a personal friend or loved one, and the latter signifying the universality and goodness of death, for death is also the “strong deliveress”. He now sings joyously of death.

      In Section 15 the poet sees “long panoramas of visions” which he can now interpret in a mystical way. He has risen above personal grief. Thousands have suffered in the war. Furthermore, he realizes that it is the surviving relatives and friends who are the real sufferers, and not the ones killed.

      Section 16 rounds off the elegy with a repetition of the symbols and images mentioned, as the funeral procession has reached its destination and the poet has understood the significance of death. Lilac, star and bird song are united in the poet’s song, as the poem ends on a note of serenity and acceptance.


1. Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennal and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

      These lines from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d summarize the theme of the elegy. The poet mourns the death of Abraham Lincoln who (was a man of the masses, the leader of the nation, the darling of his people). He steered his country to success during the national crisis of the civil war. Lincoln’s death was a national tragedy and an unbearable loss to the poet. He being the Voice of his people, warbled the sad notes on his idol-Lincoln. It was spring time - the time when lilacs bloomed when Lincoln was killed in cold blood. Lincoln was like the ever-shining star leading his people on the right path. The lilac, the drooping star in the west, and the spring form a Trinity which would always bring the beloved Lincoln to the poet’s memory.

2. Death's outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
It thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die.)

      The hero of the masses Lincoln was shot dead by Booth. It was an unbearable loss to the people of the Nation. It afflicts the poet as a personal loss. The poet voices the emotions of the people. He calls Lincoln - the Western orb that had sunk. It was Springtime. The lilacs were blooming. Somewhere the poet hears the hermit thrush’s warbling songs of sorrow. He compares his soul to the thrush. The thrush can’t be seen but can be heard. He asks the soul to give vent to its sorrow in the form of caroling “Death’s outlet song of life” - or else the soul would succumb to the burden of sorrow. Later the line acquires fresh significance - Death assumes the position of being an outlet to life.

3. Falling up them all, and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear'd the long black trait
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death...

      The poet mourns the death of Lincoln in the beginning. He describes the funeral procession of the departed leader. The poet sits and looks at the day-to-day life of the people in the world. The people go about their jobs quite unconscious of the shadow of death lurking behind them. The poet sees the appearance of the cloud above them. The poet suddenly realizes the nature of death. It is inevitable. Everyone born has to die. This idea leaves the poet richer with understanding and he reconciles himself to the thought of death. The elegy is raised from the personal to the universal plane. We note the merging of images of the “long black trail” and “cloud” into the funeral trail.

4. Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome.

      Whitman addresses death as a ‘dark mother coming nearer to mankind with soft steps. None can know when she knocks at the door. Whitman addresses her as a strong deliveress. Death on the face of it. leaves behind a trail of sorrow, a tale or woe and never-ending misery, hence no one would welcome her. On the other hand he would welcome her with adulation and feasting. One who has the realization that death is inevitable to everyone, will only be reconciled to the idea of death. The hermit thrush’s song assumes new significance now - Death offers an outlet into new life. Thus the theme of renewal and resurrection is realized.


      One of the major themes in Whitman’s poetry is death. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd is thus not only an elegy on Lincoln’s death, but also a reflection on death in general.

      The Cyclic Structure of the elegy is obvious even to the lay reader. The images of lilac, the star and bird occur all throughout the poem. The poet moves from star to lilac to bird, and back to star again, to repeat the circle, but eventually settling with the hermit-thrush. The structure is closely associated with the theme of the cycle of birth and death. The theme is enforced through the symbols.

      Progress of Personal to Universal. As in the conventional elegy, in this elegy too the poet moves from an impassioned expression of personal grief to a universalization of that grief. In Section 6 with the introduction of “cities draped in black”, “the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads”, “the thousand voices rising strong and solemn”, the grief is shown to be shared by the whole nation. From the grief over one man’s death, the poet passes on to reflect that he would offer flowers and sing for all the dead. From this point, the poet moves on to the general idea of death also. But the poet is not reconciled to death, he grieves for the dead. He is unable as yet to have “knowledge of death”, he only has “thought of death”. But by the end of the poem he has progressed to “knowledge of death”, or true understanding of the nature of death.

      Theme of Death and Symbols Interwoven in the Texture of the Poem. The theme finds expression through the use of symbols. Whitman begins with the Lilac and the western star both signs of Spring - the ever-recurrent Spring, and hence, themselves recurrent. With Spring will also come the memory of Lincoln’s death as he was killed in Spring. The association of this memory with the Lilac and the star to form a Trinity suggests the immortality of Lincoln. It also suggests the eternal cycle of life and death in nature as a part of which man s death must also be seen. The lilac and star are symbols of rebirth and resurrection.

      The lilac symbolizes love and sympathy-green and heart-shaped leaves suggesting fertility, life, love and tenderness. By placing a sprig of lilac, “blossoms and branches green”, on a coffin, life is brought close to death, life is bestowed on the dead. The act is symbolic of the gift of eternal spiritual life to the physically dead. The lilac also symbolizes equality and brotherhood. It blooms in the common farm-house dooryard, or practically everywhere, Thus on another level, the lilac is most befitting for the coffin of a man who championed true democracy. Further, it suggests that death is an equalizer, as is spiritual life.

      The star again is associated with re-birth and resurrection, occurring in that position every Spring. In Section 8, it becomes a symbol of sadness and woe and also an interested celestial observer of man’s fate-like a deity who foresees and mourns man’s tragedy but is helpless to prevent it. The poet also associates Lincoln with the star which here becomes the symbol of luster overcome by the “night” of death.

      While the star and the lilac have clear associations with grief over death the hermit thrush’s song is the symbol of the spirituality and the realization of the true significance of death. It is a shy and hidden bird whose voice can be heard from “the swamp in secluded recesses”. It is “a song of the bleeding throat”, “Death’s outlet song of life”. The poet at first only vaguely perceives the close association of life and death. The identity between the poet and the bird is established-both have to sing, for otherwise, grief would have killed them. The poet takes some time to fully respond to the bird’s song. It is in Section 9, that a dramatic tension or struggle between two symbols begins the star which represents grief over personal loss and death in general and the bird which represents acceptance of death as a part of nature, and sings “Death’s outlet song of life”. Even in Section 13, the poet has not fully understood the significance of the bird’s song, though he wants to -

...yet the star holds me ....
Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.

      The ‘odor’ of the lilac suggests a sensuous attachment, perhaps suggesting earthly grief. In Section 14, the tension begins to be resolved. The poet sees in “the long black trail” enveloping the nation, the universality of death. His mind has been full of the “thoughts of death”. But gradually he has become aware of the “knowledge of death” also. He is now fully capable of appreciating the bird’s song. “Death’s outlet song of life” acquires a new significance. Death is described now as a “dark mother” and a “strong deliveress” - signifying rebirth and renewal and freedom into spirituality. Death is no longer seen as only a cruel deprivation of life, it is also a deliverer into spiritual life. The universal necessity and benevolence of death are clearly indicated:

Come lovely and soothing death:
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving
In the day, in the night, to all, to each, Sooner or later, delicate death.

      In Section 15, the poet has acquired a mystical insight by hearing the bird’s song. He has understood that death is universal; he is able to rise above personal sorrow. He has also realized that the dead are not the sufferers, while

The living remain'd and suffer'd ....

      The symbols and images are brought together in the last section. The death’s outlet song, the lilac with heart-shaped leaves, the bird’s song, the drooping lustrous star all coalesce, as the coffin of the “sweetest wisest soul” reaches the end of its journey:

Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul
There in the fragrant pines and the cadars dusk and dim.

      Thus death assumes a joyous significance; it is to be accepted with serenity. While, of course, this philosophical acceptance is in the style of traditional elegies, we must note that it is also basic to Whitman’s attitude to life and death, his belief in the eternal cycle of birth and death and progress towards spirituality.

      Realistic Details Merge into Symbolic. Whitman has shown his ability to move from the realistic to the symbolic plane in this poem. The poem is replete with realistic descriptions - the lilac blooming in the dooryard, the star sinking on the western horizon, the shadowy cedars and the ghostly pines, the hermit thrush singing in the swamp, the clouds-all these are realistic but they also have symbolic significance. The poem as a whole embodies a progression - the funeral proceeds to its destination and the poet proceeds along the path towards true understanding of life and death. As the coffin reaches its destination, the poet realizes the true significance of death - it is not only the end but also the beginning, it is not only a deprivation, it is also a release. As T.S. Eliot puts it:

In my beginning is my end,
In my end is my beginning ....

      The funeral procession’s passage through the various areas of America is most realistically presented. It passes through a wide and varied topography watched by countless sad people. The picture suggests the universality of grief felt at Lincoln’s death. In Sections 10, 11 and 12 while the poet wonders how to rectify the sins of the dead hero and what pictures would adorn the grave. We cannot help but notice the significance of the items he lists. The sunlight, the sea-winds, fresh sweet herbage, the rivers and hills, the cities, the workshops, and workmen - these suggest the comprehensiveness of Lincoln’s impact (on Nature, city, ordinary men) and his spirit of democracy. “The varied and ample land and the far-spreading prairies” suggest Lincoln’s breadth of vision, while the “morn with just felt breezes”, “the coming eve delicious, the welcome night and the stars” suggest his immortality. In Section 14, “the long black trail” represents merging of the images of the cloud and the funeral train.

      Conclusion. In this poem, which Waggoner has called “Whitman’s most fully formed and finished long poem of great imaginative energy”, emotions are embodied in a number of powerful symbols. James Miller has succinctly summed up: “The western star is Lincoln, its fixed position in the heavens suggesting his steady leadership of the nation. The ‘harsh surrounding cloud’ represents death and tragic loss it leaves in its wake. The lilacs, returning every Spring, symbolize the eternal memory of the President and the strong love of the poet for him. The hermit-thrush represents the voice of spirituality, his song ‘Death’s outlet song of life’.” Thus the poet travels from grief to joy and acceptance.

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