Lilacs and ‘Ever-Returning Spring’

One morning this week, there was plenty of light in the sky at 6am, and powdery floral odors wafting in the window. On my walk the night before I stopped three times to smell the lilacs in particular. It meant it was time for the annual ritual of reading Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

Poems that stick in your brain always beg the question, why? Why this poem? What about it resonates with you? (The best audio reading of it I found online was produced by the Nashville Public Library for its podcast, Just Listen.)

“With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,/ With every leaf a miracle…”

In the case of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” it’s an easy favorite for sensory reasons. I mean, who doesn’t like lilacs, fleeting and early of the season and redolent of crushed Smarties as they are? But still, the poem is over 200 meandering lines, an unfocussed elegy that can’t keep its attention on the subject of its own grief. “Lilacs” especially shocked me when I first read it for all its sections that turn grief on its head by singing the praises of death.

It starts, sprawlingly enough, with a line in its first (of sixteen!) sections, “Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,” then jumps from one to the next in that “trinity” in whom its addressing, from a “powerful western fallen star” (Venus presumably, as metaphor for the deceased Illinoisan, Lincoln), to the sweet-smelling sprig the speaker impulsively breaks upon hearing the news of his death, and then to a bird: a thrush, whose song unexpectedly absorbs more attention than either of the other two.

It’s an ambitious and unwieldy premise, but Whitman can’t even stay that focussed.

It’s a poem I have turned to in times of grief over death but never really dared share, since its praise of death, as much as I love it, may be the wrong message to those in the deepest throes of loss:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death
.


Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Then later, Whitman being carnal as always:

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.


The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Carnal, as always.

As a Union Army volunteer nurse he was something of an authority on the subject, and he is the high priest of our secular culture, in a sense, but this is not the sort of thing you break out between “Amazing Grace” and “Morning Has Broken,” unless you really know your audience!

I was surprised to read, in prepping for this post, that Whitman wrote it in the summer of 1865, just a few months after Lincoln was shot. It worked for me as a poem about the “ever-returning” season, and the capacity for the smell of lilacs to evoke the day Lincoln died, so I’d figured he had to have written it the following year. I guess I took the word “last” in the title too literally: “The last time lilacs bloomed in this dooryard.” Not knowing that was better perhaps (You’re welcome, or maybe Sorry, about that.) since the poem works so well as a meditation on the the cyclical nature of time and memory.

I have tried reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s book about the way the American Civil War changed how we think of death itself, Republic of Suffering, a few times, and honestly keep wondering what I’m missing. This poem, however, I read every spring, and many times in between, and it says something profound about the privateness of grief.

For all the bombast about the “orb sailing the heaven,” the “Sea-winds blown from east and west,” and the “battle-corpses, myriads of them,” Whitman takes his grief to a quiet swamp: “The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements.” Increasingly the line between the warbling of the thrush and his own poetic voice, becomes blurry, reinforced by a sweet, archaic use of the word tally.

No surprise, I guess, that the man who did so much to create the vast interior life we are all carrying around in our heads, took all the grandeur of the most public death of his century and distilled his grief about it into the quietest of moments: “Lilac and star and bird entwined with the chant of my soul/ There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”

Goosebumps every time.

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