Sunday, August 8, 2010

Text Discussion #12: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd - Memories of President Lincoln

William Neidlinger only sets the first verse of "Lilacs" in his song "Memories of Lincoln."  Rather than wade through all sixteen verses here, I am only going to discuss the verse Neidlinger set.  Some great criticism of the whole poem can be found here, and the whole text can be found here.

Lilacs at sunset in Ft. Tryon Park, New York.
Photo from berk2804 on flikr.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd

When lilacs last in the dooryard 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

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilacs blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Gay Wilson Allen points out in his book Walt Whitman's Poems (New York University Press, 1968) that Whitman uses the "symbols from the time of year when [Lincoln was assassinated]--lilacs, Venus, the evening star..." as a means to contrast the assassination with the beauty of the spring that surrounded it, the gruesomeness of this particular death set against the overwhelming beauty of lilacs in spring and the goddess of beauty and her star standing watch over all of it.  Perhaps, like in some other war poems, he was striving to find the beauty even in this utterly devastating blow.  I think, though, that he is saying that forever more this beauty will serve as a constant reminder to him of that horrible night at Ford's Theatre.

There isn't much for me to say about this.  While Whitman is using symbolism here, it is pretty clear what he is referring to.  In the second stanza of the poem, he talks about how the lilacs, because of their perennial blooming, will serve as a constant reminder of the killing.  I think here, however, when he refers again to the star drooping in the west, it is Lincoln and his time setting on the world.  Lincoln was from the west (remember at this time, Illinois was a western state, not a mid-western state).  I'm not saying Whitman was meaning for this to be the case, but his use of the word "trinity" when referring to the three things spring will now bring (lilacs, Venus's decent/Lincoln's setting star, and the thoughts the lilacs trigger) lends a holiness to Lincoln's memory.  I have said before that I believe Whitman's religion was his love for his country and all things American.  He had a great respect for Lincoln and it isn't a far leap to make that Whitman would bestow a sort of god-like status upon the slain leader, especially considering that the shooting occurred on Good Friday.

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