Whitman’s admiration of President Lincoln is widely acknowledged and can be seen throughout his works. In addition to several poems dedicated to the 16th President, Whitman also wrote much prose about Lincoln. In one lecture, “Death of Abraham Lincoln,” Whitman states that every year on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination he hopes to “hold its tragic reminiscence. No narrow or sectional reminiscence. It belongs to the States in their entirety” (1037) And Whitman offers an inclusive reminiscence of Lincoln with his commemorative poems, “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” – both of which are rife with symbolic elements.
Obviously, it is difficult not to focus in on the prevalence of lilacs in the latter poem. Along with the falling star and the hermit thrush, lilacs are seen throughout the poem. I know (based on Whitman’s notes) that lilacs were featured because he saw them on the day of Lincoln’s assassination, but I find the symbolism of lilacs fascinating in the context of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. Lilacs symbolize confidence in the receiver of the flowers. “I give you my sprig of lilac” (460) and “Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves” (466) – Whitman does not expressly mention Lincoln, but I have little doubt that the you to whom he bestows the symbol of his confidence is the late President.