Whitman, Lincoln, and Lilacs

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.



3 Responses to Whitman, Lincoln, and Lilacs

  1. Emma McGlade February 17, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

    I’m really glad you brought up the important and powerful symbol of the lilac that Whitman brings up in his poetry in relation to Lincoln. I also really enjoyed that you uploaded a supplementary image of a lilac sprig to your blog. Lilacs are a symbol of beauty and regeneration, since they’re seen primarily blooming in the spring, but only for a short time. This could point to Lincoln’s death, which occurred in the spring, when lilacs were in mid-bloom. Lincoln’s life was in mid-bloom when he was murdered at such a relatively young age and at such an important time in his life and in American history. However, I think it was smart of you to understand the part of the poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” that lilacs can symbolize confidence in the receiver of the flowers. I had never thought of it that way, but Whitman’s tone can take on a strange celebratory tone in parts of this poem when discussing death, so it makes sense.

  2. Shaina Clingempeel February 19, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    On an initial basis, I thought perhaps “Lilacs” revolved around a “love interest” of sorts, as representative of man’s transcendent nature against death. However, your comment made me think about this in context of Lincoln’s death, which makes sense, contextually, as Whitman dwells on the concept of one’s inevitable legacy, and Lincoln’s would prove the ultimate example of this. When Whitman mentions the “burial-house” that he “adorns,” this could point towards the metaphorical honor Lincoln receives, in addition to the literal manner in which his actions extend beyond the reach of his own life span (464). Thus, Whitman, and others influenced, become able to “adorn” Lincoln’s burial-house, or to spread his messages throughout.

    Likewise, Whitman does not fear death, because his messages would receive a similar extension beyond his life, and because he would receive freedom from warfare. Reading this with Lincoln in mind, I better understand how Whitman combats death in such a manner–for Lincoln, death provides a gentle resting place, as it “soothes” him, and as it rids him of his warfare suffering (464). Your choice of the word “confidence” definitely illuminates the poem, especially with the quote you cited, in regards to the “reminiscence” that belongs to the states; as Whitman disarms death via “confidence,” he becomes able to “adorn” Lincoln’s deathbed, to celebrate his life and its extension, as an individual activity, and then as a communal one (464).

    Although Whitman begins with on a somewhat uncharacteristically solitary note, he then walks “alongside” death, to permit others to join him in his grieving process, as well as in his celebration of Lincoln’s life itself. For this reason, he becomes able to grieve in a manner that provides him with triumph, as he hears the “grey-brown” bird and its song of mourning with clarity.

  3. Prof VZ March 12, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

    We don’t often think of Whitman as a poet of symbols, but of bold chants and declarations. For that reason, among others, I love the the way symbols like the lilac lend this poem a more refined formal appearance, even as Whitman always stretches the bounds of that formal reserve (as when he breaks a spring, but then can’t help but load up the coffin–the coffin of death itself–with arm fulls of flowers). I also really like the way Whitman emphasized the importance of lilacs across his work, a motif that has been picked up by later poets as well (as we read in D. A. Powell’s “Sprig of Lilac.”

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

Skip to toolbar