Yesterday I took a walk in the cool sun of spring, and passed a lilac bush in bud. And then for all that evening, this line kept coming into my head:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d…
It is a cradle rocked by a loving hand;
It is feet moving in a dance: step Step, step Step, step-step Step, step Step…
How Nature can astonish us. Suddenly, in the 19th century, out of the American soil, out of the silence of the Quaker meeting house, out of the fields and meadows and the bustling young city, out of the helpless tears of Civil War, came Walt Whitman.
No one had seen his like before.
No one has seen his like since.
A completely different voice, as though a bird plain-feathered like its kin suddenly began warbling a throbbing new song unknown to all its kind.
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.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
He shows us the painful deep wound healed only by time, yet never fully smoothed away:
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night–O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d–O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless–O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
He shows us peace and remembrance:
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
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 dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.
What other poet of the time could have raised such an elegy? What other voice could have spoken in tone and varied cadence so fresh?
As that Whitman poem begins with a gentle to and fro rocking, so does this:
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight…
And after more lines, the lilac again;
When the snows had melted—when the lilac-scent was in the air…
T.S. Eliot wrote:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
But in his verse the lilacs are not seen by the gentle, loving eye, they put forth no fragrance to touch the heart and awaken it. Everything is barren, stony, meant for death. His is a bookish, cold, indoor spring of the mind that knows no softness nor sweet scent.
Thank goodness for Walt Whitman.