Study Guide

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Death

By Walt Whitman


Elegies are about… death, and also about grieving. So of course death is a major theme of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Did you even doubt it? All the same, Whitman gives the topic his own spin by considering death as something more natural and beautiful than frightening. He nixed the whole Grim Reaper thing for the lovelier metaphor of a "Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet." We know—it's not as cool to put on your heavy metal t-shirts, but we have to say: we'd go with the dark mother if we have a choice.

Questions About Death

  1. How does the speaker envision death in the poem? How is this perspective different from most elegies and how does it affect our reading of the poem?
  2. How is the theme of death related to the Civil War? Is the speaker's attitude towards death in this context any different from his more general outlook on mortality? If so, how? 
  3. What's the significance of the lilacs in relation to the poem's theme of mortality? 
  4. Does the speaker's "ever-altering" song contribute to our understanding of mortality in the poem? How do his frequently changing moods relate to the theme of death and grieving?

Chew on This

Death? It's not that bad, really. Mortality is looking pretty good in Whitman's poem since death is often personified as a "Dark mother," ushering us into her "loving floating ocean."

Hold up a sec. Death may look better here than it does in most elegies, but the grieving and suffering look just as severe as always in Whitman's poem.

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