Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a pastoral elegy written by Walt Whitman in 1865 after the assassination of president Abraham Lincoln. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" never mentions Lincoln by name, but it uses key symbols to illustrate the collective grief of the American populace, as well as Whitman's grief.

A pastoral elegy is a subgenre of pastoral poetry that focuses on death through an idyllic rural lens. Pastoral elegies commonly recast the deceased as a shepherd, and these characters are usually surrounded by mythological creatures such as fauns, satyrs and nymphs, as well as natural elements such as flowers, plants and animals. Pastoral poetry dates back to the Hellenistic poetry of 2nd century Greece, and Greek mythology is commonly used in these poems.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd At a Glance

Publishing Info"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" was originally written in 1865 and published by the Gibson Brothers. The poem was subsequently published in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass.
Written ByWalt Whitman
Form / StylePastoral elegy, broken down into 16 sections. These 16 sections are composed of three simultaneously occurring poems tracking three different scenarios.
MeterFree verse
Rhyme SchemeWhile there is no consistent rhyme scheme, Whitman utilizes rhyme several times throughout the poem
Notable Literary DevicesRhyme, symbolism
Notable ImageryThe coffin, poet holding a lilac, the bird, the star
Key ThemesDeath / mourning, resilience, war / politics
Meaning"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a series of poem pieces compiled to make one work that contains three simultaneous poems. The poem was written after the death of Abraham Lincoln and depicts public as well as private mourning.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Critical Analysis

This poem is rife with symbolism and imagery that points to the specific historical context in which it was written. Below, some key events, as well as some key excerpts from the text are included.

Historical Context of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"

There are some key historical perspectives that are needed to understand the significance of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". Included here is a timeline of some key events, outlining the historical contexts of this poem.

  • The Civil War (1861-1865): The Civil War and the events surrounding it inspired many of Walt Whitman's poems. Within "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", the war is referenced several times. The speaker says in lines 178-179, "And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them, / I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war". Whitman took the side of the North in the war, but volunteered as a medic in Washington D.C. for several years. He treated soldiers from both the Confederacy and the Union and wrote down much of his experience in letters and poetry.

  • The Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 15, 1865): Perhaps the greatest influence on "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", the death of Abraham Lincoln inspired Whitman to write this pastoral elegy, illustrating both public and private grief over the loss of the well-liked president. Whitman was a large supporter of Abraham Lincoln and went on to create a lecture series about the president, delivered all over the east coast in Whitman's later years.

  • Romantic Nationalism: Whitman was a self-proclaimed Nationalist, and utilized the beliefs of Romantic Nationalism many times in his work. Romantic Nationalism is a form of Nationalism that was popular during this era. The belief states that the government's power is granted by the unity of the populace it governs. Whitman believed in this principle and believed that public grief over Lincoln's death further unified the country.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Poem

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a long-form poem, composed of 206 lines. Below are a few excerpts from the poem (Whitman's 1865 version).

See how many repeated symbols you can find in the poem text. Repetition is often used by poets and writers to indicate that a certain image, phrase, or symbol is important. Some symbols found below might include times of day, certain plants or animals, or times of the year. Try underlining or writing down these symbols and what you think they might mean.

1

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, (5)

And thought of him I love.


2

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! (10)

O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.


3

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, (15)

With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,

A sprig with its flower I break.


4

In the swamp in secluded recesses,

A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush, (20)

The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,

Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,

Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,

If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.) (25)


6

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, (35)

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, (40)

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. (45)

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Summary

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is composed of three different poems that occur simultaneously within the work. The first poem follows a coffin that presumably carries the body of Abraham Lincoln. The second depicts the speaker with a sprig of lilac in contemplation of death and mourning the loss of this public figure. The third utilizes the symbols of a star (Venus) and a bird (the hermit thrush) to indicate the ways in which nature mourns with humanity over the death of Lincoln, while simultaneously remaining separate from the suffering of humanity.

This poem is, at its heart, about private and public mourning. The speaker holds a lilac throughout the poem, waiting to place this lilac on the coffin as it passes by. At times, the speaker sees the lilac as representative of their personal grief surrounding the war as well as the death of Abraham Lincoln, but at times the speaker sees the lilac as just a flower, mentioning bringing arms full of lilacs to grieve the loss of this public figure. The speaker explores how to grieve for the loss of a critical public figure in the face of personal grief as a result of the ongoing war. Throughout the poem there are mentions of death and violence, the speaker constantly trying to figure out how to hold their internal pain and grief despite the public nature of the deaths.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd', Lilacs in a box, studysmarter

Purple and white lilacs as in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". Pixabay.

The poem begins with language that is rigid and formal, referencing classical interpretations of grief and exemplifying the speaker holding their grief together. As the poem continues, however, the speaker moves away from the traditional, formal structures. The lines grow longer as the speaker concentrates more and more on how best to mourn the dead. In sections 10-11 the speaker wonders how they should adorn the grave of those that they love. It is in these sections that we see a shift away from the formal, the speaker aching to adorn the grave with images of everyday men, wanting the deceased to be surrounded by those things that represent life.

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" ends with the image of a singing hermit thrush, bringing beauty to the otherwise tragic world. The conclusion of this poem demonstrates a disconnect between nature and man, showing that all of the other musings of the speaker have been worked through, but nature is not something that can be worked through in the same way as human suffering. The final sections of the poem paint an understanding that, though personally important and symbolically significant, the death of Abraham Lincoln is just another experience of sadness in a world suffering from confusion and pain. In this way, the poem is all the more beautiful for the personal nature of the grief surrounding this historical event.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Themes

There are many themes explored in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". Some themes include, grief, mourning, pastoral imagery, death, resilience, politics, war, violence and nature. The three key themes of grief, resiliency, and violence are explored in greater depth below.

Are there other themes that you can find within the poem? Poets often explore many themes under the surface imagery of a poem. For a more comprehensive analysis, try to list some more themes and images or language that point to those themes.

Grief

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" explores the public and private nature of grief and how people process the death of important public figures. At times, the speaker's grief response feels sufficient. The speaker explores the internal nature of grief despite Abraham Lincoln being a public figure. In lines 74-77, quoted below, the speaker mourns openly, in combination with nature. They feel their grief as an expansive thing, combining breath and chant with the winds of nature in a powerful mode of elegy:

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’ll perfume the grave of him I love."

At times the speaker's grief process feels all-consuming and their labors of love feel insufficient. Lines 54-59 (quoted below) indicate that the speaker feels their single sprig of lilac is insufficient for expressing their personal grief. They state that the graves should be decorated with roses, lilies and lilac. It is important to note that the speaker is referring to the overwhelming death that has been occurring during the war. The speaker references "the coffins all of you O death", bringing attention to the fact that there is more than one coffin needing flowers on it.

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.)"

While grief permeates the entirety of this poem, the expansive nature of the speaker's mourning process elevates this pastoral elegy to a new place. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a poem that explores the public nature of grief (bringing arm-fulls of flowers to be placed on a grave) while maintaining the private nature of grief (speaking words over the grave of a loved one). Whitman's exploration of the contrasting nature of public and private grief is one of the things that make this poem so relatable to those who read it.

Resiliency

At its heart, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a poem about the resiliency of the American populous. There are an abundance of images in this poem of the mundane and cyclical nature of life, indicating that life goes on despite the pains and sufferings of the confused and violent world. Some images that paint the resiliency of the American population include:

'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd', Hermit thrush,, StudysmarterHermit thrush, as depicted in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" Walt Whitman, Pixabay.

  • Vibrant city life: In section 12, Whitman creates images of bustling city life, filled with sunshine and the spires of Manhattan. This city life continues despite the grief of Lincoln's passing. This section is concentrated on the ways in which life persists for the American people, even in the face of trauma and sorrow. The vivacious depictions of crops growing, the sun and stars indicate a world that continues despite hardship.

  • The hermit bird: The hermit bird is present in several sections of the poem. The singing of the bird combined with the impact on the speaker's soul in section 16 is one of the greatest examples of the bird's connection to both man and nature, as well as its resilience in the face of war and suffering.

  • Spring flowers: In sections 3 and 11 we see clear depictions of flowers growing in the springtime. These flowers indicate a life that continues despite hardship, and the speaker expresses their love and joy upon seeing or smelling the blooming flowers several times. As the lilac is representative of the speaker's grief in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", it also represents the ability of the speaker (and the broader American population) to continue on despite their grief.

Violence

Naturally, the theme of violence is very present throughout "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". There are images of war, as well as images of peace that contain the undertones of war and aggression throughout. In combination with images of the Civil War, there is the consistent undertone of recognizing that the poem is about an assassination. Quoted below are some key examples of the exploration of violence within the poem.

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 slain soldiers of the war,"

This quotation from lines 177-179 in section 15 recounts the events that Whitman experienced while volunteering as a medic in the Civil War. Section 15 creates juxtaposition between the beauty of life and the violence and pain of death. While the theme of violence is certainly present throughout the poem, Whitman does a good job of including the beauty that can come from fighting for a common cause. Another image that demonstrates this is the procession of Lincoln's coffin:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,

Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,"

As Lincoln was assassinated, the procession of the coffin to the grave throughout the poem is as ominous as it is sad. This clear expression of violence points to the broader message that the murder of the great American leader made the entire country mourn. The above lines (lines 33-34 from section 6) continue to explore the connection that the assassination has on nature as well as man, painting an image of comradery between the two, despite the terrible violence creating this grief.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Literary Devices

Walt Whitman was known for his rich use of colorful and creative language and literary devices. There are many, many literary devices used in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", but a few key devices are discussed below.

Pastoral Elegy

While elegy is a genre of poetry, Whitman uses pastoral elegy in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" to create a different relationship to death than is generally expressed in traditional elegiac form. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a poem that does two things: mourns the death of Abraham Lincoln and praises the beauty and life of springtime. The first six lines from the poem state:

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. (1-6)

This is an example of these two seemingly opposing ideas existing together. Pastoral elegies traditionally paint the deceased as a shepherd, and though this poem does not do this, it does express the overwhelming love that Whitman felt towards Lincoln's leadership. This adoration leads the reader to understand Lincoln as a shepherd of the American people, if not reimagined as a shepherd of nature. Utilizing pastoral elegy in this poem allows the tone of the poem to be one of reverence as well as grief. Whitman praises the unfaltering beauty and grace of the American spring while simultaneously painting a tragic image of Lincoln's death, which also occurred in the springtime.

Symbolism

There are many symbols located within this poem, but three key symbols discussed here include lilacs, Venus, and the hermit thrush. These symbols are the guiding threads of the three interwoven narratives of this poem. While these symbols are present throughout the entirety of the poem, they do not consistently stand for the same things, so the symbols may have more meanings than those discussed below.

Lilacs

The symbol of the lilac contains many biblical references, but all point to the expression of the speaker's grief at Lincoln's death. The heart-shaped leaves of the lilac point to the speaker's grief at Lincoln's passing. The purple of the petals could indicate the passion of Christ and may be an allusion to Christ's crucifixion in the Bible, indicating the violent nature of Lincoln's death. The lilac also traditionally represents the ever-recurring nature of the springtime, and recalls Christ's resurrection, which we see expressed in line three where Whitman writes:

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring." (3)

Lincoln's death coincided with the Christian holiday of Easter, and this is referenced through the use of the lilacs.

Purple is traditionally associated with the passion of Christ in the Bible, as the Roman soldiers clothed Christ in purple before his crucifixion. Purple in the Bible is also commonly associated with wealth or luxury, and can represent royalty or someone of high importance. In "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" the color purple can simultaneously symbolize the passion of Christ and the violent nature of the death, and the regal, royal connotations with the color.

Venus

Venus (the star) is one of the symbols that has several meanings throughout the poem. Most frequently, Venus is linked with Lincoln himself. The speaker laments in section two of the poem:

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!" (7-9)

This clear reference to Lincoln as a star drooping in the western night sky indicates the light of Lincoln's life fading. The star also represents the speaker's grief of both Lincoln and all those who passed during the Civil War. As seen in the above lines, the speaker is calling out to the night sky in grief and sadness, mourning the loss of the star (Lincoln) and lamenting the "murk that hides the star" which could indicate violence or the historical scar of the Civil War.

Hermit Thrush

The bird (hermit thrush) is another major symbol within the poem. The bird's song represents the song of the soul, as well as the reconciliation of the speaker with death and grief. Lines 21-25 state:

The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,

Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,

Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,

If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)"

This song is representative of the two opposing forces of life and death, but it combines the two in a way that makes them seem more like siblings than forces that oppose one another. The song is death's outlet of life. This means that, though the bird's throat is bleeding and he is by himself, it is as in his nature to sing as it is to die. It recounts death as something that will come for all living things eventually, but paints the beauty of life in the face of mortality.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Meaning

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a poem written by Walt Whitman at a turning point in American history. Though it is a poem about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is an exploration of human grief in the public and private sectors, a pastoral elegy that concentrates on the simultaneous guidance and otherness of nature and our place in the natural world. Using three different symbols that are multifaceted, and found throughout the poem, Whitman paints a grief poem that shines through with hope and love, despite the darkness of that chapter of US history.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd - Key Takeaways

  • "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" was written about the assassination of American president Abraham Lincoln, published in 1865.
  • The poem is three simultaneous poems simultaneously occurring within one poem, following the hermit thrush, the procession of Lincoln's coffin, and the speaker's grief as they interact with the lilacs.
  • The lilacs in this poem represent Whitman's grief at the death of Abraham Lincoln, and are also biblical allusions to rebirth, the resurrection, and the crucifixion.
  • "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a pastoral elegy, depicting Abraham Lincoln as a leader of the American people, and explores the vastness of nature in conjunction with human grief.

Frequently Asked Questions about When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd

The lilac symbolizes several things, including Whitman's grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln, the recurrent nature of springtime, and Biblical allusions such as the resurrection of Christ and the violence of the crucifixion. 

Some main themes in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" include: grief, resiliency, and violence. 

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" commemorates the death of Abraham Lincoln.

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a pastoral elegy. 

The three main symbols in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" are the hermit thrush (bird), Venus (the star), and the lilac.

Final When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Quiz

Question

What year was "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" written?

Show answer

Answer

1865.

Show question

Question

What are the three different poems that combine to make the poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"?

Show answer

Answer

1) The procession of the coffin of Abraham Lincoln

2) The speaker's grief as they mourn with the lilacs

3) The hermit thrush and renewal of springtime

Show question

Question

What war is mentioned in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"?

Show answer

Answer

The Civil War

Show question

Question

What does the song represent in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd?

Show answer

Answer

The song represents the speaker's acceptance of life's relationship to death, as well as death's inevitability.

Show question

Question

What does the purple of the lilac represent in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"?

Show answer

Answer

The purple represents the passion of Christ, as well as the violence of the crucifixion. 

Show question

Question

What bird is in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"?

Show answer

Answer

The hermit thrush

Show question

Question

What is a pastoral elegy? 

Show answer

Answer

pastoral elegy is a subgenre of pastoral poetry that focuses on death through an idyllic rural lens. Pastoral elegies commonly recast the deceased as a shepherd, and these characters are usually surrounded by mythological creatures such as fauns, satyrs and nymphs, as well as natural elements such as flowers, plants and animals. Pastoral poetry dates back to the Hellenistic poetry of 2nd century Greece, and Greek mythology is commonly used in these poems.  

Show question

Question

What is Romantic Naitonalism?

Show answer

Answer

Romantic Nationalism is a form of Nationalism that was popular during this era. The belief states that the government's power is granted by the unity of the populace it governs. Whitman believed in this principle and believed that public grief over Lincoln's death further unified the country. 

Show question

Question

What does Venus (the star) symbolize in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"?

Show answer

Answer

Venus symbolizes Abraham Lincoln most frequently in this poem. 

Show question

Question

What are some poetic devices used in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"?

Show answer

Answer

Anaphora, metaphor, rhyme, symbolism

Show question

More about When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd
60%

of the users don't pass the When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Just Signed up?

Yes
No, I'll do it now

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.