Walt Whitman: Poems

Whitman's Elegy for Lincoln College

Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is an elegiac poem in memory of Abraham Lincoln. The poem tracks the narrator waiting to lay a sprig of lilac on the president’s coffin, the physical journey that Lincoln’s coffin takes across the country, and, finally, a lone bird mourning far away from civilization. Specifically, the opening stanzas of the poem that follow the narrator and the stanzas concerning the thrush bird characterize the poem as an elegy through their use of classical elegiac conventions, such as references to nature, song, the apotheosis of the dead, and the transference of the narrator’s mourning to the entire world.

Throughout the poem, Whitman uses the traditional imagery and symbolism typically employed in an elegy poem. One component of elegiac imagery relies on an emphasis on nature or the pastoral, which is evident from the first line of the poem:

When lilacs last in the door-yard 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.

Whitman uses the image of colorful lilacs and spring, the season of new life, to juxtapose the premature death of Lincoln as well as to convey the speaker’s deep sadness to...

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