T. S. Eliot wrote:
April is the cruelest month,
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land…
Though he has his memorable phrases, I always have the feeling that Eliot is writing in a room hermetically sealed off from Nature, as though he lives more in the mind than in the world. His is a dry poetry of the intellect.
With Walt Whitman, on the other hand, the reader is thrust immediately into the real world, into the midst of life and emotion. Today we will look at one of his best-known poems,
WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOMED
When lilacs last in the door-yard 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.
At first glance we might think this is just a poem about lost love, but there is far more to it than that.
We must begin by recalling two apparently unrelated things in the month of April:
1. Lilacs bloom in April.
2. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865. After lying in a coma for nine hours, he passed away on April 15, 1865. He had guided the young United States through the major part of the greatest crisis and upheaval since its founding — the Civil War.
It used to be common for houses — particularly farmhouses — to have a lilac planted nearby, so that its fragrance and beauty might be easily enjoyed. Whitman looks back on that April and its strange mixture of the scent of lilacs in the yard by the house door, and the death of Lincoln.
That death accounts for Whitman’s mourning. Each spring will bring blooming lilacs, and with them will inevitably come the memory of the death of Lincoln, the shocking death that happened
When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d….
But something else accompanies the lilacs: the great star — the evening star, which is the planet Venus — hanging low in the western sky on an April night. This star is a symbol of Lincoln to Whitman, a star that will set in the West. Those of you who are long-time readers here will recall that from time immemorial, the West has been associated with death, as has the evening star.
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.
Each spring, like this one, will bring a trinity, a threeness of things to Whitman. Those three things are the lilac blooming perennial, the drooping star in the West, and the thought of “him I love” — that is, of Lincoln.
And here Whitman is overwhelmed by emotion, by a grief he expresses in these words:
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!
The powerful, western fallen star is Lincoln. The shades of night are the dark shadows cast across the country by his assassination and death, a dark night of the spirit, a tearful night. The great star has disappeared; a black murk, an impenetrable gloom of sorrow and death has hidden the star. These bitter facts, the death and the deep, painful sorrow, are the “hands that hold me powerless.” Whitman is caught in the reality that Lincoln is dead, and nothing can change that. He feels helpless in his dark grief, the “harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.”
Now Whitman turns from his profound grief to the lilac:
In the door-yard 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 door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.
He sees a lilac bush blooming in the yard of a simple old farmhouse, a bush planted near the white-washed picket fence that marks off the yard. It stands tall, with rich green leaves in the shape of a heart (a hint of Whitman’s deep emotions in this poem), and with spire-shaped, delicate blossoms with their wonderful, strong fragrance. From this farmyard bush, with its heart-shaped green leaves, Whitman picks a sprig of lilac. We shall see why later in the poem.
And now Whitman turns again, this time to a seemingly unrelated scene:
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.
This is the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), a plain-looking bird with a very beautiful song. It is called a “Hermit” because it likes to hide away in leafy, forested areas and tends to solitary habits except during the mating season.
And what is its 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.)
Whitman hears the thrush’s song as a “song of the bleeding throat,” that is, a song of pain and suffering. The bird, he thinks, sings because if it did not express its sorrow in that way, it would surely die. That is why he calls its song “Death’s outlet song of life,” and speaks of the bird as his brother; Whitman too feels he must sing out his grief for Lincoln’s death in poetry, or else that grief would kill him.
And now we turn to another scene:
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 debris;)
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 orchards;
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
Whitman’s America was still a very rural America. He sees, passing through the land in spring, a journeying coffin. This is the funeral train that left Washington on April 21, 1865. It carried the coffin with Lincoln’s body on a long route that passed through Maryland, then Pennsylvania, then New Jersey, and into New York. Hundreds of thousands of people sadly witnessed the passing of the train and viewed the body in cities along the way. In New York City, on Tuesday, April 25th, the coffin was placed on a funeral wagon pulled by sixteen horses, and then it was drawn in procession down Broadway and other streets filled with mourning throngs. On return to the train, the coffin was carried on through New York and into Ohio, with more stops and processions along the way. It came to Indiana. On Sunday, April 30th, it passed through Richmond to the tolling of all the church bells. After more stops in Indiana, the funeral train proceeded into Illinois, where again thousands of mourners viewed the body. Finally it reached its destination: Springfield, Illinois — Lincoln’s hometown — where the body was at last laid to rest in its tomb.
So the funeral train passed through cities, lanes, woods, fields of grass and wheat, and through “apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,” that is, through blooming apple orchards. Everywhere mourners sadly watched its passing.
In this next segment Whitman describes the arrival of the train in towns and cities filled with sorrowing throngs, cities “draped in black.” He imagines the States themselves standing like “crape-veiled women,” that is, like women dressed in the black cloth and garments of mourning. He describes the funeral processions, the “flambeaus” (torches) at night — countless torches lit, sad and silent watching faces, funeral dirges, church services, tolling bells, the whole land in mourning. And as the coffin passes, Whitman reaches out his hand to place his plucked sprig of lilac upon it as a sign of his love and his grief:
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
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 faces,
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 coffin,
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.
Whitman wrote this poem in the summer of 1865, when the memory and shock of Lincoln’s death and of the Civil War were still fresh. In offering his sprig of lilac, he says he offers it
(Nor for you, for one, alone;
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:
For fresh as the morning—thus would I carol a song for you, O sane and sacred death.
That is, he makes his offering of lilac not just to Lincoln, but symbolically to all the coffins of the dead. And in doing so, he desires to sing a song, an ode to “sacred death.” He brings (in his mind) bouquets of roses and lilies, but mostly, at this time in spring, the lilac that is the first-blooming of them. He imagines himself breaking sprig after spring of lilac blossom, filling his arms with it, and bringing it all to pour the fragrant flowers upon the coffins of all the dead:
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.)
He recalls the great star that drooped in the Western sky:
O western orb, sailing the heaven!
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since we walk’d,
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 after 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 cold transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul, in its trouble, dissatisfied, sank, as where you, sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.
He muses that the star, declining in the sky night after night, had been a sign with something to tell him as he walked in the evenings, unable to sleep. He sees now that star was filled with woe (sadness, misfortune), and as it sank to disappear in darkness, so Whitman’s spirit sank with it as well.
Now he returns to the Hermit Thrush:
Sing on, there in the swamp!
O singer bashful and tender! I hear your notes—I hear your call;
I hear—I come presently—I understand you;
But a moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.
He feels the thrush is calling to him, and he says he understands, and will come, but he wants to wait a moment beneath the star that reminds him of Lincoln, because the memory “holds and detains me.”
He sees himself as a kind of hermit bird, and he asks,
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?
How shall Whitman sing for the dead Lincoln? How shall he ornament his song for the departed soul? And how shall he make the grave fragrant? His answer:
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.
The perfume for the grave shall be winds from the sea, winds that blow from the East and From the West, and meet on the prairies of the Midwest. Those, together with the breath of Whitman’s poem, shall be (symbolically) the perfume for Lincoln’s grave.
But, Whitman asks, what shall he hang (again symbolically) on the walls of the tomb in which Lincoln is buried?
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 of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.
He will deck it with pictures of spring growth, of farms, homes, of the Fourth Month (April) evening at sunset, with grey smoke, with the gold of the setting sun, with fresh grass and the leaves of trees, with the glassy flow of the river, dappled by wind, and hills and shadows, and the nearby city with its houses and chimneys, with all of the activity of life, of workshops, and of workmen returning to their homes. In short, he will ornament it with America:
Lo! body and soul! this land!
Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying 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 corn.
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 stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.
He speaks to the thrush, urging it to sing:
Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird!
Sing from the swamps, the recesses—pour your chant from the bushes;
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 depart;)
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.
To Whitman the voice of the Hermit Thrush, a song filled with woe, is like a human voice — a reflection of his own sorrow.
He talks about how, in the midst of everyday life, there came the dark cloud of word of the assassination, and suddenly he felt he knew Death:
Now while I sat in the day, and look’d forth,
In the close of the day, with its light, and the fields of spring, and the farmer preparing his crops,
In the large unconscious scenery of my land, with its lakes and forests,
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb’d winds, and the storms;)
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides,—and I saw the ships how they sail’d,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages;
And the streets, how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo! then and there,
Falling upon them all, and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail;
And I knew Death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.
Shocked and saddened by the news of Lincoln’s death, he wanted to leave human company, to go down to the swamp in the evening’s dim light, down to where the Hermit Thrush sang its lonely song:
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night, that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars, and ghostly pines so still.
And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me;
The gray-brown bird I know, receiv’d us comrades three;
And he sang what seem’d the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.
By “us comrades three” he means the lilac, the evening star, and the thought of the dead Lincoln. And there in the swamp and shadows, Whitman listens, and his feelings become one with the song of the bird:
From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars, and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.
And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held, as if by their hands, my comrades in the night;
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.
Whitman feels the song of the thrush is a song in honor of Death:
Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
And for love, sweet love—But praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.
Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Whitman sees that Death is a part of life — of existence — and should be honored and welcomed for its service as the “Dark Mother” who eventually receives all into her embrace. If others will not praise Death, Whitman will, and sings his song:
Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach, strong Deliveress!
When it is so—when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.
From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee—adornments and feastings for thee;
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky, are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.
The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil’d Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song!
Over the rising and sinking waves—over the myriad fields, and the prairies wide;
Over the dense-pack’d cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death!
Whitman’s song to Death and the song of the Hermit Thrush join:
To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure, deliberate notes, spreading, filling the night.
Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist, and the swamp-perfume;
And I with my comrades there in the night.
As he sings, Whitman sees images, visions of the Civil War and its battles, its suffering and its fields of the dead:
While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed,
As to long panoramas of visions.
I saw askant the armies;
And I saw, as in noiseless dreams, hundreds of battle-flags;
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc’d with missiles, I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody;
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken.
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men—I saw them;
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war;
But I saw they were not as was thought;
They themselves were fully at rest—they suffer’d not;
The living remain’d and suffer’d—the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
Whitman knew what he was talking about; he had been a nurse in the Civil War, and saw suffering and death first-hand and immediate. But, he says, all those dead young men were at last at peace. They no longer suffered. It was the living who suffered now for the loss of those precious lives — the mothers, the wives, the children, the friends of the dead and the armies of those who fought but survived.
And with this, Whitman is at last free. He has remembered the sorrow the lilac evoked, and the mourning with the appearance of the star, and the thoughts of the death of Lincoln and of all those who died in the Civil War. He has sung his song of praise to Death, who has released them from their suffering. He can now leave, can pass by the visions of the dead, pass by the night, pass on from the holding of his comrade’s hands; he can leave the song of the Hermit Thrush, and his own song. He can leave the lilac and its heart-shaped leaves, and he can end his song of sorrow and turn from the evening star shining low in the western sky:
Passing the visions, passing the night;
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul,
(Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth, and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,)
Passing, I leave thee, lilac with heart-shaped leaves;
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring,
I cease from my song for thee;
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous, with silver face in the night.
But though his song is over, and his mourning complete with the praise of Death and its release from suffering, he will not forget the experience:
Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep—for the dead I loved so well;
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands…and this for his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.
He takes with him the memory of what that night has brought: the song of the Hermit Thrush, his own chant/song united with it, the luminous evening star, the tall lilac with its heavily-fragrant blossoms. The lilac, star and his thoughts are his comrades, holding his hand, saying visually what the the call of the thrush says in song. They are to be his lifelong comrades — his companions, because with them he will always remember, every spring, the dead that he loves so well: the soldiers who died in the war, and Lincoln, “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” He will remember the lilac, the star, and the hermit bird’s song joined with his own,
“There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.”