When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd
by Walt Whitman
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Introduction
In A Nutshell
It seems everyone's on a Lincoln kick these days. But the guy was kind of important in his day, too. Walt Whitman definitely seemed to think so, which explains his poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," first published in 1865 (not coincidentally the same year that Lincoln was assassinated).
Whitman really loved the guy and had no qualms about voicing that love. So you can imagine that, when he got word of his hero's death—affectionately symbolized in the poem as a "great star disappear'd"—the guy couldn't help but turn his grief into one of the most talked about elegies of American history. But this particular elegy isn't just weepy and mournful. Since Whitman wrote it, you know we're bound to get some rather uplifting words of encouragement that allow us to imagine our grief as being shared by many. In other words, we're never alone in our suffering, no matter if we're talking about a faithfully-departed president or dear friend.
So, even though Lincoln's assassination inspired this particular poem, you'll notice that Whitman's speaker extends his grief, and later his consolation, to all deathly circumstances. He even manages to make death look less severe by calling it a "Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet," ready to usher us into her "loving floating ocean." Leave it to Whitman to turn even death into something beautiful.
It kind of makes sense then that Whitman has been coined America's "national poet." If he ever had the chance to schmooze with Lincoln in real life, chances are the two would've seen eye to eye on a number of things. Lincoln was all about preserving the union and Whitman was all about creating a sense of unity between all of humanity in his poems. And with this poem, Shmoop thinks our man did a mighty fine job too, unifying folks in some of their darkest and most painful hours. Props to you, Walt.
Why Should I Care?
Once you've seen one Lincoln poem, book, movie, elementary school play, you've seen them all, right? After all, how many different ways can we really talk about a guy who died over a hundred years ago? Well, we don't know about those elementary school plays, but we do know that Walt Whitman's, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is something wonderful. Our man Walt starts off thinking about Lincoln and his legacy, but pretty soon he's veering off into something much bigger, and therefore more relevant to us twenty-first-century folks.
Let's face it: the guy's not called America's "national poet" for nothing. In fact, lots of folks seem to believe that you can't really understand America without understanding Whitman's poetry. The two kind of go together, like apple pie and hot dogs (eating both together: not recommended). So, even if the idea of sitting through another Lincoln story sounds just as exciting as watching the grass grow, you just might learn something about the alluring energy and unity that makes America what it is.
Plus, since it's about death (and we know how interesting that is), you'll notice that the poem gives us a slightly more uplifting way of rationalizing our pain and suffering. It isn't all about woe and Kleenex. And unfortunately, we all have to confront that "Dark mother" at some point in our lives. So why not do so in a way that tries to make the most out of the situation? After all, death has pretty much got the upper hand here on Earth, so we might as well get to know her—and how to cope with her—before she ushers us off into her "loving floating ocean."