In the previous posting, I discussed Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d. I think of today’s much shorter poem by the same writer as a companion to that longer work. It seems to complete and lay to rest, in peace and simple beauty, the turbulent emotions expressed in the first poem. Both are in his book Sequel to Drum-Taps. The final surrender of Confederate troops had taken place on June 2, 1865, marking the end of the terrible American Civil War that had divided friends, family members, and the country.

When the war first broke out, Whitman began visiting the wounded in New York hospitals. Near the end of 1862, he received word that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, and was in Falmouth,Virginia. Whitman went to care for him, and got his first look at a field hospital and the results of the hasty and primitive surgery of the day. He saw “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening…

From there, Whitman went to Washington, and for the next three years devoted much of his time there as a volunteer nurse and comforter to the wounded and dying of the war. His loving and compassionate nature gave the suffering a care that they desperately needed in those cruel days. He wrote to a friend, “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield

Finally, the great tragedy of the Civil War came to and end, and with it came the time for a nation broken by years of violent enmity to unite. Whitman, with his experience of the suffering and death in the war, and with his compassion, wrote this poem:


Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

“Reconciliation” is the word over all, the word that covers all the wounds and suffering and death, and to Whitman, it is — with the sentiments it evokes — “beautiful as the sky.” Its beauty is

that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

Whitman recognizes the place of time in this, as in the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” And with time work “the sisters Death and Night.” We have seen Whitman’s praise of Death in When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” praised because it brought an end to the suffering of the dying; and here Death’s sister, Night, brings ease through sleep, forgetfulness of the horrors of war. It is beautiful how Whitman personifies them as two sisters, patiently and lovingly washing,

again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

They cleanse the world soiled by hate and war, a task completed not immediately, but by the repetition of their labors through time, so that

war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost.

Whitman shows us the end of the war and the beginning of reconciliation in this symbolic image:

… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

To Whitman, human life was sacred. He wrote in Song of Myself,

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

It is a view that reflects not only the Quakerism of his childhood, in which every human has the divine within, called the “Inward Light,” but also the influence of Transcendentalism, in which the world is an expression of divinity, and humans all parts of the “Over-soul.”

Reconciliation is made vivid and immediate to us by the image of Whitman walking to the coffin where his enemy lies — in his bending down, and gently kissing the face in the coffin.

Vengeance is a terrible and soul-destroying thing, and Whitman knows that. But beyond that knowledge is the feeling of his inherent sameness with the former enemy,

“a man divine as myself is dead…”

And Whitman sees the great tragedy in that hard fact, the tragedy that was the Civil War. We feel the end of that war in the man lying there; and in Whitman’s kiss, the seal that completes it: Reconciliation.


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 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?

He answers:

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.”


Life, as we all know, has its ups and downs.  Normally the ups are slight, the downs are slight, but we all go through phases, whether days, months, or even years, when things just do not seem to go right at all.  That can be very wearing on the human spirit.

Bread line - Dayton (LOC)
(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

In such circumstances we begin to notice all that is bad or amiss, not only in the people around us but in ourselves.  It all begins to seem a bit overwhelming.  Our faith in humanity is shaken, as is our faith in ourselves.  Walt Whitman went through such times, and wrote this poem expressing concerns with self (O me!) and with existence in general (O life!) — thus its title, O Me!  O Life!

I will discuss it in parts:

O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Whitman not only ponders but deeply feels the questions associated with one’s being and with the life of which one is a part, the great questions that keep recurring.  He thinks of the masses of people around him, the “endless trains of the faithless,” meaning the long lines of people who betray our hopes and expectations of them.  He thinks of the cities full of foolish people (they existed then, they exist now), and he considers how he is constantly reproaching himself for not living up to his own notions of what he should be and how he should act in the world.  He sees all the other foolish, faithless, fallible human beings, and he considers himself no better, no less foolish and faithless than they.

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; 
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;

He thinks of how our eyes — both physical and spiritual — crave “vainly” (in vain) for light that will brighten our darkened lives and enable us to somehow see some meaning in it all, some redeeming significance.  He thinks of the “objects mean,” which we may take not only as the craving of humans for things that do not last and do not satisfy, but also as the unworthy objects (objectives) of our striving, goals that do not seem ultimately worth our toil to achieve them.

He considers the “struggle ever renewed,”  of our constant efforts and labors to gain this or that thing, this or that position in the world, or merely to survive, to have food on the table and a roof over our heads.  And he ponders the “poor results of all,” how things just do not seem to turn out the way we would like, how even the most valued of prizes seem to lose their glitter once they are achieved.  And he thinks of the “plodding and sordid” crowds he sees all around him — the people caught in the rat-race of life, the people who have made it by standing on the backs of others, the many more who have failed in one way or another or feel they have failed, those who have not made it and have given in to numbness of spirit or dismal despair.

He thinks of the “empty and useless years” people spend in their often vain pursuit of this or that goal, of their frustration in not achieving it; of the wasted years of lives seemingly without achievement or purpose or point.  And he counts himself among them, feels a part of them,  “with the rest me intertwined.”

All of this brings up the great recurring questions.  What is it all about?  What is my place?  Do I have one?

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

The question comes to us over and over again:  in the midst of all the striving and disappointments and sordidness and meanness of life, what good is there in it all, of what use is it for the poet himself to exist, what point is there?


Whitman gives us and himself a simple answer:


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

He tells us that existence itself is the reason for being — that life exists is in itself enough, and that in this life we have identity — we are who we are.  Among all these masses there is one named Walt Whitman, and he is an actor in the great play that is life, that vast, ongoing poem that is life; and each human, like Whitman, will contribute a verse to it.  Every individual life, in whatever direction it goes, whether viewed as success or failure by others or by one’s self, is a verse in that poem of multitudes.  That we all play our parts and contribute our lines, Whitman tells us, is enough.

I always remember a ’60s cartoon in which a supposed sage is asked, “What is the answer to the secret of the universe?”  And the reply is, “The answer to the secret of the universe is not to ask stupid questions.”



We reach and strain with our thoughts, trying to grasp what poetry is, trying to somehow distinguish it from all that is not poetry, but without success.  Then we come across something as simple as this statement by A. E. Housman:

Poetry is not the thing said, but a way of saying it.”

And it is as though the sun has risen, dispelling the darkness; because that is exactly what poetry is.  It does not lie in the thing said, however significant it may be.  It lies, rather, in how that thing is said.

All of the traditional paraphernalia of poetry, whether rhyme, rhythm, alliteration or assonance, are merely means to this end — saying the thing in a way that makes it poetry.  Their use, of course, is no guarantee at all that the result will be poetry, but we know that they are used with poetry as the goal.

Prose, we may say then, is the reverse; it is not so much how a thing is said as what is said.  It is meaning that is important and the key element.

We should not misunderstand this and think that poetry has no meaning, but rather that what meaning it carries is molded to the manner in which it is presented, however important the meaning may be — if it is to be poetry.

We may separate the meaning from the poem by explaining it in ordinary, everyday English, but by doing so we cause the meaning to lose its poetry.  If that were not so, we would all constantly be speaking poetry.

 So poetry is a way of saying something, a special way, and there are various tools and manners that may be used in so speaking — again like rhyme and measure and rhythm, alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), but not all of these tools are essential for writing a poem.  It all comes back to a way of saying something.

We may go on to remark that obviously, then, poetry is not ordinary, everyday speech, which concentrates more on just saying a thing than on how that thing is said.  Poetry is the changing of one’s common speech pattern to say a thing in a way that makes it more pleasing or interesting or effective, or all three combined.

Sometimes the line between poetry and ordinary speech may seem blurred at first, but with a little reflection it is recognized nonetheless.  When W. H. Auden wrote his poem September 1, 1939, he was talking about the outbreak of World War II, the invasion of Poland by German forces — and he was seemingly conversational in doing so; we see, however, that this would not have been his everyday speech — not the way he ordered a meal, nor the way he talked to a friend.  And it is that little change that makes all the difference in transforming something from prose to poetry:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night

 We find the end rhymes — dives / lives, bright / night, afraid /decade.  And we find “odd” ways of saying things, such as

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth…

Eliminate the rhyme, however, say instead that people all over the world are angry and afraid, and the poetry dissolves — vanishes into prose.  

We tend to think that poetry is cut up into lines (and it usually is), while prose is divided into paragraphs.  But actually poetry and prose are somewhat like human gender behavior, which shades from one extreme to the other.  Some men are very stereotypically masculine; others are very stereotypically feminine; but between the two poles are found all the people who fall somewhere between.  In the change from prose to poetry, as in human gender roles, we find a graduated scale.  Some poets border on prose, but never fall completely into it, or they would not be poets.  There is still something to their way of saying the thing that is recognizable as poetry.

But the matter is a little more complex.  Even in prose, people often do not write as they commonly speak.  They leave little things out; they use “big” Latin or Greek-based words, instead of plain and simple Anglo-Saxon; they say things more concisely, and perhaps more effectively.  There is a vast difference in even so small a matter as an invitation to dinner:

1.  Do you wanna have dinner with me tomorrow?
2.  Your presence is requested at a dinner honoring the accomplishments of H. N. Featherwood.

And then there is poetry:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table; 

One comes to recognize and to distinguish poetry from the other two kinds of speech, the ordinary and the formal.  What one must be wary of is prose that is disguised as poetry by being divided into lines in imitation of poetry.  Some people who write this way think they are writing poetry, and some critics are deceived into thinking the same.  But those who realize that poetry is not just dividing prose into lines on a page, but rather is a way of saying something that is different both from ordinary and formal speech, will not be fooled.

Some would-be poems include the bare minimum of the special way of saying something that is poetry, and sometimes not even that.  We should not confuse that kind of writing with the “conversational” yet quite poetic manner of Walt Whitman in his Shut Not Your Doors:

Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves
       yet needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page. 

But, you may say, no one talks like that!  And I reply that you have grasped the point.  No one talks as Walt Whitman wrote in poetry.  You may think they do for a few words or a line, but the poetry will out.

The same may be said for Robert Frost, another sometimes even more “conversational” poet.  Look at the beginning of his Birches, where he fools us into thinking that we are just listening to the rambling conversation of some New England ruralite, and it is only gradually as we read on, and feel the rhythm, and begin to sense his increasingly revealing way of speaking, that we become aware that what seemed to begin as conversation was actually just the path into poetry:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.  Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain.  They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust —
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. 

When reading Frost, one often has the feeling of being tricked into submitting to some sort of peculiar farmer’s incantation, because what seems ordinary speech at first increasingly weaves a charm of words, as though Frost were a kind of New England shaman chanting away, putting a folksy spell upon us, as in his After Apple-Picking:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 

This incantatory nature of his writing is one of the most pleasing things about Frost.  And again, it is a way of saying it; it is poetry.

So we know, in theory, what poetry is and what it is not.  But that does not mean we have defined poetry.  We must still be able to distinguish between poetry and mere verse — between what is genuinely poetic and what just uses some of the tools of poetry but does not succeed in being poetic.  For that we can only return to another statement of Housman: that poetry is known by its effect on us.  But here we are back again at the beginning, reduced to saying that “good” poetry is a matter of opinion and taste formed by education and experience.




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.

Absolutely astonishing.

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;

Once, Paumanok,
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.


Cooks and craftsmen know that it is important to choose the right tool for the right job.  The same applies to verse.

In my years of teaching hokku, I commonly and often heard the complaint from haiku enthusiasts that hokku did not permit them to write about such things as their romantic relationships, or their attitude to a current war, or their cars or cell phones.  One phrase I heard so often that it seemed a mantra among them was, “If Bashō were alive today, he would write about these things.”

No, he would not.  How can I know that?  Because hokku is specifically about Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and to make it other than that would be to turn it into a quite different category of verse (i.e. “haiku”).  The root of the problem is that the would-be writers — the haiku enthusiasts — did not grasp or share the hokku aesthetic, and that is the reason for their dissatisfaction.

But the principle of using the right tool extends more widely than simply the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  Donald Keene gives an excellent example in his book World Within Walls: Japanese LIterature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867.  Kamo no Mabuchi, a waka writer of the 18th century, made a verse on the death of his mother, prefacing it with this:

When I was told that my mother had died I could hardly believe it was true; I had spent seven years away from her, able to see her ony in dreams.  But the person who informed me was in tears.  I had supposed our separation would last only a little while longer, and had long looked forward to spending her old age with her, going together to different places, living in one house.  But what a vain and sad world it proved to be.  What am I to do now?

His waka (my translation) is:

I hoped
That like wild geese
We’d gather —
But all in vain;
The great village of Yoshino.

As Keene points out, without the preface one would not be able to make head nor tail of the waka; but even more significant, there is more poetry in the prose preface than in the verse itself when divorced from the preface.

Mabuchi would have been wiser to have written in the wider format of Chinese verse (which Japanese sometimes did), giving the scope necessary to convey in verse what he tells us in his preface.

Bashō made a similar error, as R. H. Blyth points out, by trying to write as hokku what minimally required the somewhat wider format of waka:

The autumn wind;
Brush and fields —
Fuha Barrier.

How flat and spiritless it is, compared to the waka on which it was based:

No one dwells
At the Fuha Barrier;
Its wooden gables
Have fallen to ruin.
Only the autumn wind.

That is far superior to the weak soup of Bashō’s attempted hokku, and again, the reason is that Bashō chose the wrong tool for the job.

Hokku, as I often say, was never meant to be all things to all men.  It has its tasks and it performs them well.  But when one chooses a subject requiring more scope, one should write it in a more expansive form, whether that of waka or “Chinese” verse (but in English, of course), or in whatever format fits one’s needs.

Can you imagine Walt Whitman trying to put this into hokku form?

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.

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.

It would have been an exercise in futility.  And similarly, writing hokku does not mean one must write ONLY hokku.  Some subjects require more space, and for them one must select a format that is most appropriate to the task.

In doing so, one must not try to make hokku stretch and distort to fit whatever one wants to force into it.  Instead, use it for its proper purpose, and for other purposes do what a good cook or craftsman does — use other and more appropriate tools.