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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.
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."
Poems Upon Poems
Peruse all the different ways you can use "I" in a poem.
One-Stop Whitman Shop
Here's all you could ever want to know about Whitman's life and work.
Feast your eyes on all things Whitman.
Check out this video of the speaker's "song."
Creepy Animated Whitman
Check out the way Whitman might have looked reading, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Eerie.
Student Video Tribute
Um… A for effort?
Simple, Creepy Reading
Here's a nice and simple reading of our poem with our man animated again. Why are people doing this?
Got 42 minutes? Then we have an audio version for you.
Dig the beard—very hipster.
Here's our man, lost in thought.
Behold, the grandfather of American poetry.
The lilacs look mighty pretty and hopeful.
The "Intimacy" of Walt Whitman's America
Slate Magazine talks all about how our man managed to make America so vast and yet so familiar to us.
Rediscovered Nineteenth-Century Whitman Articles
Lots of new material has popped up about our man and his lectures on Lincoln, among other things.
Walt Whitman and the Civil War
Here's everything you'd ever want to know about Walt during some of America's toughest times.
To Walt Whitman, America
Apparently Ezra Pound thought Walt Whitman "is America."