Whitman’s lilacs are one of the most enduring poetic symbols of the modern age; lilacs in a poem are never just lilacs. Traditionally, lilacs signal the coming of Spring as one of the earliest blooming flowers and represent youthful innocence and the first feelings of love. In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, the blooming lilacs serve as a reminder of Lincoln’s death and evoke a sense of mourning. Although they still stand, “tall-growing…rising, delicate…with every leaf a miracle”, they do not hold the same hope for Whitman. One stanza ends with the line, “A sprig, with its flower, I break”; there seems to be so much tension around the word “break”, ending the stanza on an almost violent note, but with a delicate sad echo in his desire to take the lilacs with him. The entire poem is wrapped up in extended metaphors which put a pretty facade on the deep current of mourning that underlies the poem. However, the war was over and won.
In Pablo Neruda’s poem, “I Explain Some Things”, he opens by evoking Whitman’s lilacs and by drawing attention to their absence. The first stanza sets up the rest of the poem with a powerful series of questions:
You Will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics laced with poppies?
And the rain that often beat
his words filling them
with holes and birds?
The obvious lack of lilacs suggests a spring that will never come; additionally, it seems Neruda is asserting that the rest of his poem will not be cloaked in delicate symbols and images. “His words”, filled with, “holes and birds”, suggests a certain lightness which Neruda also seems to suggest will not be present in the work to follow. He then asserts his mission: “I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me”. He then goes on to tell his story, the story of a boy and his brothers and a beautiful home flushed with beautiful flowers living in a community that is dynamic and thriving and luscious. Then, “one morning everything was burning” when the city was thrown into chaos by “Bandits with airplanes and with Moors… Jackals the jackal would reject”. The image of blood is repeated again and again, emphasizing the degree of violence during the revolt. This is not simply the blood of men, but Neruda writes, “through the streets the blood of children ran simply like children’s blood”. At the end of the poem Neruda addresses the “Traitor generals” as he looks upon the wreckage of his Spain, “Instead of flowers, from every dead house burning metal flows”; his mourning is deep and the desolation of the place is seemingly hopeless.
Neruda ends the poem by addressing the expectations of his poetry once again and offers a powerful challenge in response:
You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
Although Neruda had great admiration for Whitman and his poetry, he was aware that his crisis was on an entirely different scale. For Neruda, no image or symbol could be as powerful as beholding the blood of innocent children running through the streets. Whitman’s poetry is often talked about in terms of crisis and recovery, and in this poem there is no recovery. Neruda’s bold language and jarring images impart the gravity of the devastation of his home, and he will not speak of lilacs.