“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is a long poem commemorating the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman recounts the time when the lilacs last bloomed and the “great star” shone in the sky. This is the time that he mourned and “thought of him I love.” The star that Whitman sees is a “powerful western fallen star!” A harsh cloud surrounds him and holds his soul so that the light of it no longer shines. In a field, Whitman takes a “sprig” of lilac.
Whitman tells of the journey that Lincoln’s coffin takes through the land. It travels through the “breast of the spring, the land, amid cities” and through nature. The cities are “draped in black” and all of the people mourn. A thousand voices raise in a dirge for the fallen man. As the coffin passes, Whitman places his sprig of lilac on top of it. This is not only lilac for Lincoln, however. Whitman says that he picks the lilac and places it over “the coffins all of you O death.”
Whitman cries out that he has no words or songs to memorialize this man that he has loved. He does not know what to hang on the walls of the burial chamber, or what the pictures should look like. He imagines scenes of the vast prairies of the West with flowing rivers and he imagines the cities and the scenes of busy life. He thinks of the sun that shines over all the cities, “enveloping man and land.” He hears the song of a “gray-brown bird” that sounds as freedom, though “the lilac with mastering odor holds me.”
Whitman remembers the day when, staring out at the natural world and the ships sailing by, he saw the great cloud of death and its “long black trail….” With this knowledge of death, Whitman flees to the shores and the swamps and “ghostly pines so still.” There, the gray-bird found him and it sang “the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.” The bird’s song is a call to death, to come and soothe him. The bird praises the “fathomless universe” and all it holds. This “Dark mother” is “always gliding near with soft feet” and so the bird brings an unfaltering melody to welcome it.
In a vision, Whitman sees “battle-corpses, myriads of them” and the “white skeletons of young men” all at rest, not suffering. Those that suffered were the wives and children and friends of the dead. The armies that remained suffered. As the night and darkness leave, Whitman leaves the lilac with the spring. He stops his song but remembers the “Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of m soul, / There is the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”
In a rousing poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman compares Lincoln to a ship’s captain. The ship has come through many hardships, and Whitman cries for the Captain to see the port and hear the people’s cries, but the Captain has fallen dead on the deck. Whitman cries for his Captain to rise up, to see that the “flag is flung” and the “bugle trills.” He believes it must only be a dream that the Captain has fallen. The Captain, however, is “pale and still” and does not answer the cries of others. The “ship is anchor’d safe and sound” and Whitman tells everyone that the shores should “exult” and the bells should ring, but that he will only mournfully tread the deck of the ship.
Whitman changes directions in the “Autumn Rivulets” section and engages a broad array of subjects. In “There Was a Child Went Forth,” Whitman tells of a child that sees an object for the first time and lets that object become a part of him for a day, or for many years. Thus, the lilacs and the grass and the lambs and the water-plants all became a part of his life and of him. As the boy grows up, more and more things become a part of his understanding – the apple-trees, an “old drunkard staggering home,” and “the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls….” The child’s parents, however, gave the child even more than this. They gave themselves. The family, in fact, gave the boy “the sense of what is real, / the thought if after all it should prove unreal….”
In “Miracles,” Whitman turns around the question of whether miracles exist. Whitman asks “who makes much of a miracle?” because, for him, there is nothing but miracles in the world. All of nature from the trees to the animals and birds and even to the insects – all are miraculous things. Talking with anyone that he loves, or sleeping in the bed at night with someone he loves, is a miracle. All of light and dark is miraculous and the sea is “a continual miracle.” Whitman asks, “What stranger miracles are there?”
Whitman asks “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?” Is it “The stupid and the wise thinker, parents and offspring… / Editor, author, artist, and schoolboy…?” The problem that Whitman encounters is that he hears of “abstracted” and beautiful things, yet these things are so beautiful that he cannot tell another or himself what these beautiful things are. Whitman denies that there could have been a plan or an architect that could have built such a world, nor does he believe that “seventy years if the time of a man or woman….” Everyone, in fact, is immortal, “And that my soul embraces you this hour, and we affect each / other without every seeing each other” is also a wonderful and beautiful truth. In the poem “Tests,” Whitman says that all “submit to them” everyone and at all times. It is not traditions or authorities that are ultimate judges, but it is what is “forever in themselves….”
In “Proud Music of the Storm,” Whitman seeks to bridge “the way from Life to Death….” In a dream, Whitman hears the sounds of music – organs blasting and voices rising – point towards the greatness of nature around everyone. Though each person has strayed from their true nature, and the separation between life and death has been long, the journey is now complete and “man and art with Nature” is “fused again.” Whitman awakes from his dream of music and speaks to his own soul to go “refresh’d amid the day” in order to cheerfully acknowledge life. This heavenly dream has nourished him for the day ahead and for all of life.
The end of “Drum-Taps” takes a tone of somber reflection on the death and destruction caused by the Civil War. This leads naturally into Whitman’s “Memories of President Lincoln.” In Lincoln, Whitman saw the ideal American. He was a genius for his understanding of the American political landscape and a hero for going to war in order to protect the unity of the nation. Whitman’s “Memories” became quite famous during his own lifetime, suggesting that he tapped into an understanding of this great figure.
In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman uses the western star to symbolize Lincoln. He also uses lilacs as a metaphor for the grief that he and his fellow citizens feel over his death. “When Lilacs” is an elegy, a mournful poem or lament for the dead. The structure of the poem makes use of Whitman’s free verse, yet is also mimics a controlled ritual of grief on the verge of bursting into throes of agony. Traditional elegies end with the poet reconciled to death and “When Lilacs” ends this way as well.
The tension of “When Lilacs” comes from the poet’s desire to reconnect with the world around him. It is the “scent of the lilacs,” the palpable state of grief, that keeps him from being able to do so. A bird once again plays an important role, singing of life and death and carrying the song of the world to the poet. It is a reminder to him of the world for which he has sung in previous sections of his book. Just as the bird’s song in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” caused an inner awakening for the young Whitman, this bird again reawakens his spirit and allows him to reconsider his grief.
It is ironic that the poem considered to be Whitman’s most famous, “O Captain! My Captain!” is also the least representative of his style. The metaphor in this poem is straightforward: Whitman compares Lincoln to the fallen captain of a ship that has just come through great distress. Though he, and the nation, sing celebratory songs of safe passage, the captain is not able to share in the celebration. It is the style of the poem that is unlike Whitman. He uses a much more structured verse and rhyme scheme here than in any other part of Leaves of Grass. This poem resembles iambic pentameter, the meter often used in epic poetry, not the free verse in which the rest of the book is written.
“Autumn Rivulets” changes the pace of the book. Whitman moves away from the somber themes of “Drum-Taps” and his “Memories of President Lincoln” to reassess his journey and the events along the way. In “There Was a Child Went Forth,” he offers his own theory of pedagogy. A person experiences the world, he says, by becoming a part of the things that he or she experiences. This is not necessarily a new theme as the reader can see this awakening in previous poems. The new dimension comes from Whitman’s understanding of the familial structure as a source of learning and personhood. The child does not just appropriate the natural world and the lessons of nature (as he did in “Out of the Cradle”); he also takes on the characteristics of his parents. This poems can be understood in the individual sense or in the collective sense, the child becoming the growing American population and the parents the traits bestowed by the particular democratic spirit.
“Autumn Rivulets” is also a section proclaiming a new start. This was a particularly important theme for Whitman in the post war years. Autumn is a metaphor for the regeneration of the nation after the war. The dying leaves of autumn, in this case, are the thousands of fallen war dead. The tree, the root of democracy, however, remains alive. Just as the earth becomes regenerated out of the dying leaves that turn to dust, so too will the nation become new because of the war dead. In this way, death is turned into a new beginning.