“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman

This poem intrigued me because Whitman’s inspiration is the death of Abraham Lincoln. Maybe it’s because I have not experienced a presidential death in my time, but I thought it was strange that he was so deeply affected by this death as if he knew the president personally. But what I found most interesting is how Whitman, unlike most authors we have read previously, relates death with spring. That isn’t a concept we are used to. He writes,

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, / And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, / I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring,” (3312).

Not only does Whitman mourn during that particular spring, but he will continue to for every spring to follow, which increases my curiosity about why Whitman was so damaged by this death. Spring has been tainted for the poet which tells us why he associates many commonly positive symbols with death instead, such as the bird and the flowers and the land. Whitman singles out a “gray-brown” bird in the poem as his singer of death which struck me because it sounds like such an ordinary bird of no significance or relation to death. Of all the birds in nature, Whitman chooses the most ordinary to represent death and sing death’s song. Aside from the crow or raven, I have never heard of birds representing death, so that is just another example of how Whitman is unique in his spring symbols.

Then we get into the actual song that the bird sings, which is also quite different as it describes death as something soothing and good. He goes as far as to call death the “Dark Mother.”

“Dark Mother always gliding near with soft feet, / Have none chanted for thee a chant fullest welcome? / Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all, / I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly,” (3317).

Whitman gives the Dark Mother soft feet and a glorified nature. The bird sings of praising the Mother above all else which makes it seem like nothing is better than death and that we should view death as a warm embrace or something to find comfort in. One could argue that the Dark Mother isn’t a comforting symbol because of her darkness and sort of creepy description, but I think the fact that she is called a Mother and is soft and joyous is meant to be a positive symbol.

The song continues to praise death as it goes on, making it sound like something wonderful. This is interesting when related to Whitman’s association of death with spring. He still describes nature in depth and includes many aspects of it, but he taints it with the birds singing of death and the images of the family members suffering as the poem is almost finished. This poem is unique in the way it does not associate spring with life. This is a definite change from Thoreau and Emerson.

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