Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

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“Syringa vulgaris” (common Lilac) cultivar, LtPowers, May 2013
“Syringa vulgaris” (common Lilac) cultivar, LtPowers, May 2013

Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with 
      spring.”

Walt Whitman may well have been describing his own vocation when he articulated his belief that literature could be a unifying force for the nation as it began its long road to healing from the scars of civil war:

“In the future of these States must arise poets immenser far, and make great poems of death. The poems of life are great, but there must be the poems of the purports of life, not only in itself, but beyond itself” (Democratic Vistas published in 1871, available from American Studies at the University of Virginia.)

In fact, Whitman had already penned the nation’s quintessential poem on life, death, and rebirth several years earlier. “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” emerged from him during the grief-stricken summer of 1865, following the assassination of President Lincoln. This free-verse narrative poem in the style of a pastoral elegy reflects both America and Whitman’s own sorrow upon the president’s untimely death. This is a lament of a stricken nation as it witnesses the train carrying Lincoln’s body make its way across the country to its final resting place. The imagery transcends that darkest chapter in American history, reaching down to the depths of the nation and Whitman’s own optimistic core, in an effort to rise from the hour of lead. In this way, Whitman provides a grieving nation with a way to process the president’s death—crafting meaning from a senseless tragedy—moving beyond bitterness and disillusionment to find solace and hope.

EDSITEment’s feature article, “21 More Poems for AP English Literature,” offers several resources to unlock the meaning of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” One resource noted is the essay by David Baker, “Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief,” from Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry, available from the Academy of American Poets. Baker provides a brilliant analysis of Whitman’s elegy and comparison with Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death—” (479). Another EDSITEment feature article, “Literature of the Civil War,” showcases resources to teach Whitman’s poetry and prose along with resources to teach the works of other writers and poets of that era, such as Stephen Crane and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.   

Classroom Activities:

  • A critical discussion of this poetic elegy to Lincoln with its three archetypal symbols — the lilac, the star, and the hermit thrush — is found at the Whitman Archive. Have students discuss these archetypes by thinking about how they function and why Whitman may have selected them. American Transcendentalist Web’s Web Study Text offers a very helpful vehicle for this comparison, with interactive study notes. After completing their analysis, have students consider if the poet could have chosen other archetypes with equal success.
  • Take the major symbol in the poem, spring lilacs, and have students compare Whitman’s use of that image with the treatment given by poet Amy Lowell in her poem, “Lilacs.”  Have them determine how each poet invests the same flower with unique archetypal significance.
  • Compare Whitman’s poetic rendering in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” with his lecture on the “Death of Abraham Lincoln” (1879). Have students consider how differently the poem and lecture address the same subject. Ask them to think about how the distance of several years from the assassination may have impacted Whitman’s composition of this speech, if it did.
  • Read the essay by Gregory Eiselein, “Lincoln’s Death [1865]” in the Whitman Archive and/or the New York Times article by Martin Griffin, “How Whitman Remembered Lincoln.” Have students think about and discuss the powerful impact the death of Abraham Lincoln had on Walt Whitman and his writing.
  • Consider the legacy of “When Lilac’s Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Reflect upon how the poem has inspired a variety of artistic expressions since its composition 150 years ago. Some examples of adaptations and works influenced may include:

    Musical compositions:
    • Gustav Holst’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Ode to Death, written in 1919 to commemorate WWI;
    • Roger Sessions’ cantata, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy after their assassinations;
    • Paul Hindemith’s oratorio-requiem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” which the Kennedy Center lauded in this article;
    • George Walker’s composition for soprano and orchestra, Lilacs, which was awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize (Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra recording);
    • Jennifer Higdon's composition for solo baritone and orchestra, Dooryard Bloom, which was discussed in this NPR music article.   

Poetry:

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text;

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9: Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

 

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