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When Lilacs Last
In the Dooryard Bloom'd
By Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication Information
Setting
Historical Background
Tone
Summary of the Poem
Text of the Poem
Themes
Style
Point of View
Sensory Language
Symbols
Anaphora
Internal Rhyme
Inversion
Archaisms
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Whitman
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Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
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Type of Work

......."When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a lyric poem in the form of an elegy lamenting the death of Abraham Lincoln. Walt Whitman wrote it in free verse, a form of poetry without a metrical pattern. One line may be short, containing only seven syllables; another may be long, containing more than twenty. 
.......The poem exhibits characteristics of a special type of elegy, the pastoral elegy. These characteristics include the following:

1...A rural locale as its setting.
2...An idealized shepherd (Lincoln figuratively shepherded the American people through a crisis).
3...Expressions of grief and praise for the deceased.
4...A funeral procession.
5...Nature imagery.
6...A meditation on death.
7...An acceptance of death.
Publication

.......Gibson Brothers, a Washington company, published "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" in 1865 in a volume that contained another Whitman poem, "Sequel to Drum Taps." "Lilacs" became part of the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, an expanding collection of Whitman's poems. 

Setting

.......The time is April. The place is a rural locale with an old farmhouse. In front of the house is a yard with a lilac bush. Nearby is a a swamp.

Historical Background

.......Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth American president, was mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., on the evening of April 14, 1865. Wilkes had shot him in the back of the head while Lincoln was in the presidential box watching the third act of a play, Our American Cousin. Lincoln died the next day. After lying in state at the Capitol on April 20, his body was transported by train to Springfield, Ill., for burial in Oak Ridge Cemetery. 

Tone

.......The tone of the poem is somber and heavy with grief, but its mournfulness eases somewhat after the speaker observes that death ends suffering. He even welcomes death:

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. (lines 136-143)

Summary of the Poem

.......The last time he noticed lilacs blooming, says the poem's speaker, he saw a great star falling in the western sky. (The falling star is the planet Venus, which symbolizes Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln "fell" from power on April 14, 1865, when he was mortally wounded. He died the following day). The speaker mourned. Now, as spring returns, he again sees the blooming lilacs and the falling star, and again he mourns the death of Lincoln. He will do so every year at this this time, he says. When the dark sky hides the star, his soul becomes a prisoner of sadness.
.......The lilacs are on a bush in a yard in front of an old farmhouse. The green leaves of the bush are shaped like a heart, and the sprouting blossoms give off a fragrance that he loves. He breaks off a sprig as a remembrance.
.......In a nearby swamp, a hermit thrush sings a lonely song from a bleeding throat. (He is not unlike Whitman, who is "singing" a sorrowful poem.)
.......It was while spring was blooming that Lincoln's funeral train traveled from Washington, D.C., to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, a distance of more than 1,600 miles, for burial of his body at a cemetery there. The speaker recalls that dreadful day. Here is how it was: 
.......A  cloud darkens the land as the train moves through the countryside, through cities draped in black, past grassy meadows and wheat fields, past apple orchards that blow pink and white blossoms. Bells toll and the people sing dirges. At nighttime, mourners with torches line the route. The speaker addresses the fallen president, saying, 
"I give you my sprig of lilac."
.......But he says he also mourns for all who die a "sane and sacred death." He breaks off more sprigs of lilacs and, along with roses and lilacs, covers death itself. When he listens to the hermit thrush singing in the swamp, he asks it what he himself should sing (write in his elegy) for the fallen president and what his perfume should be for his grave. Then the speaker answers for himself, saying his perfume shall be the sea winds, blown from the Atlantic and the Pacific, joined with the breath of his chant at the site of the tomb. On the walls of the tomb, he says, he will hang

Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air,
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific,
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there,
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,
And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning. (lines 82-89)
.......The speaker says he will also hang pictures of Manhattan, of tides and ships—and of the land itself, the South and the North in light, the shores of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the prairie grass and corn, and other scenes of nature.
.......While sitting in twilight appreciating the scenery around him and the beauty of the skies, the speaker sees the dark cloud appear; he gains insight into death and learns something of its "sacred knowledge.” 
.......In darkness, with death on his mind, he walks down to the shore of the waters and the “shadowy cedars and ghostly pines.” The gray-brown bird sings of death and of the one the speaker loves (Lincoln). 
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious, 
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! 
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death. (lines 140-143)
.......The speaker has a vision of armies, battlefields,  smoke,splintered flag staffs, corpses, skeletons. But the dead do not suffer. It is the soldiers' survivors—the wife, the mother, the child, the comrade—who suffer. He walks away from the nighttime scene and the lilac bush and ceases his song. But he has memories for "the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days."

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When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d
By Walt Whitman

1

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 spring. 

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring, 
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west, 5
And thought of him I love. 

2

O powerful western fallen star! 
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night! 
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star! 
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!      10
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul. 

3

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings, 
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green, 
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love, 
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,       15
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green, 
A sprig with its flower I break. 

4

In the swamp in secluded recesses, 
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song. 

Solitary the thrush, 20
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements, 
Sings by himself a song. 

Song of the bleeding throat, 
Death’s outlet song of life (for well dear brother I know, 
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die).      25

5

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities, 
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray débris, 
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass, 
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen, 
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards, 30
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave, 
Night and day journeys a coffin. 

6

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets, 
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land, 
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,      35
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing, 
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night, 
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads, 
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces, 
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn, 40
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin, 
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey, 
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang, 
Here, coffin that slowly passes, 
I give you my sprig of lilac.     45

7

(Nor for you, for one alone, 
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring, 
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you 
    O sane and sacred death. 

All over bouquets of roses, 50
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies, 
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first, 
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes, 
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you, 
For you and the coffins all of you O death.) 55

8

O western orb sailing the heaven, 
Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walk’d, 
As I walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night, 
As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night, 
As you droop’d from the sky low down as if to my side (while the other stars all look’d on),     60
As we wander’d together the solemn night (for something I know not what kept me from sleep), 
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe, 
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night, 
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night, 
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,     65
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone. 

9

Sing on there in the swamp,
O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call, 
I hear, I come presently, I understand you, 
But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain’d me,      70
The star my departing comrade holds and detains me. 

10

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved? 
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love? 

Sea-winds blown from east and west, 75
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on the prairies meeting, 
These and with these and the breath of my chant, 
I’ll perfume the grave of him I love. 

11

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls? 
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls, 80
To adorn the burial-house of him I love? 

Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air,
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific, 85
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there,
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,
And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.

12

Lo, body and soul—this land,     90
My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships, 
The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light, Ohio’s shores and flashing Missouri, 
And ever the far-spreading prairies cover’d with grass and corn. 

Lo, the most excellent sun so calm and haughty, 
The violet and purple morn with just-felt breezes, 95
The gentle soft-born measureless light, 
The miracle spreading bathing all, the fulfill’d noon, 
The coming eve delicious, the welcome night and the stars, 
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land. 

13

Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird, 100
Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes, 
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines. 
Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song, 
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe. 
O liquid and free and tender! 105
O wild and loose to my soul—O wondrous singer! 
You only I hear—yet the star holds me (but will soon depart), 
Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me. 

14

Now while I sat in the day and look’d forth, 
In the close of the day with its light and the fields of spring, and the farmers preparing their crops, 110
In the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and forests, 
In the heavenly aerial beauty (after the perturb’d winds and the storms),
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the voices of children and women, 
The many-moving sea-tides, and I saw the ships how they sail’d, 
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor,     115
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages, 
And the streets how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo, then and there, 
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest, 
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail, 
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death. 120

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me, 
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me, 
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions, 
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not, 
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness, 125
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still. 
And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me, 
The gray-brown bird I know receiv’d us comrades three, 
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love. 

From deep secluded recesses, 130
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still, 
Came the carol of the bird. 

And the charm of the carol rapt me, 
As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night, 
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird. 135

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, 140
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious, 
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! 
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death. 

Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet, 
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome? 145
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all, 
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly. 

Approach strong deliveress, 
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead, 
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee, 150
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death. 

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. 155

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. 

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song, 160
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide, 
Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways, 
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.

15

To the tally of my soul, 
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird, 165
With pure deliberate notes spreading filling the night. 

Loud in the pines and cedars dim, 
Clear in the freshness moist and the swamp perfume, 
And I with my comrades there in the night. 

While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed, 170
As to long panoramas of visions. 

And I saw askant the armies, 
I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags, 
Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierc’d with missiles I saw them, 
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody, 175
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs (and all in silence), 
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken. 

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them, 
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them, 
I saw the débris and débris of all the slain soldiers of the war,     180
But I saw they were not as was thought, 
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not, 
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d, 
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d, 
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d. 185

16

Passing the visions, passing the night, 
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands, 
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul, 
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song, 
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night, 190
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy, 
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven, 
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses, 
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves, 
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring. 195

I cease from my song for thee, 
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee, 
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night. 

Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night, 
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird, 200
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul, 
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe, 
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird, 
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well, 
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,     205
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul, 
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.



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Themes

Grief

.......The poem expresses intense grief at the loss of Abraham Lincoln. After describing the fallen president as "the great star that early droop'd in the western sky," the poem's speaker looks at the sky and says, 

O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd—O the black murk that hides the star!
Cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul. (lines 8-11)
Acceptance of Death

.......After expressing his sadness at the death of Lincoln and his distress at the vision of mangled corpses on the Civil War battlefield, the speaker concludes that death is actually a friend; it ends suffering. Only the living know affliction and misery. 

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. (lines 136-143)

Rebirth

.......Although the speaker says he will mourn the death of Lincoln every April, he also says he will celebrate the rebirth of Lincoln's spirit at the same time. This rebirth will coincide with the rebirth of nature in sprouting plants and blooming flowers. Even the sprig that the speaker broke off the lilac bush--a symbol of Lincoln's broken body after a bullet entered his skull--will grow back and perfume the spring air. 

Reunification

.......Thanks in large part to Lincoln's leadership, the Union defeated the Confederacy, and the North and South once again became the United States after the war. Whitman seems to allude to the reunification when he says that among the pictures he will hang on the wall of Lincoln's tomb is one of "the South and the North in the light" (line 92). This light, the speaker says, is a "miracle spreading bathing all . . . enveloping man and land." In other words, after the darkness of war, the South and the North emerged into the light of peace as one nation. The speaker also alludes to the unification of East and West when he says, 

Sea-winds blown from east and west, 
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on the prairies meeting, 
These and with these and the breath of my chant, 
I’ll perfume the grave of him I love.

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Style and Literary Devices

.......To help him express the depth of his intense feeling for his subject, Whitman uses first-person point of view, vivid sensory language, symbols, and frequent repetition of key words and phrases. Also, rather than strait-jacketing his thoughts into an established metrical pattern with fixed line lengths and stress patterns, he casts them in free verse, allowing his content and the power of his passion to dictate line length and rhythm. Finally, to give the elegy a poetic cast, he uses the traditional devices of inversion of word order, internal rhyme, and archaisms. Let us look at each of these devices. 

First-Person Point of View

.......Whitman believed it was incumbent upon a poet to reveal his feelings, his personality, in his work. Consequently, he uses I, me, and my in his poetry to present his reactions and responses to everything from the activity of a spider ("A Noiseless Patient Spider") and the lecture of a scientist ("When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer") to the death of Lincoln in "Lilacs." This approach—along with his use of free verse, which has no metrical pattern and therefore somewhat resembles everyday conversation—helps him to establish rapport with the reader. His poem thus becomes like a signed, handwritten letter to the reader instead of an impersonal form letter.

Sensory Language

.......Whitman creates strong, almost palpable, imagery, as in the following passage:

And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls, 
To adorn the burial-house of him I love? (line 80-81)

Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air;
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific; 
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there;
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows;
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning. (lines 82-89)

Symbols

.......Whitman's use of symbols enables him to express his feelings succinctly. 
.......Consider, for example, the "great star," which symbolizes Lincoln. (The star the speaker sees is actually the planet Venus.) A star is a source of light. So was Lincoln. At a time when the evils of slavery and war darkened the land, Lincoln illumined it with his leadership. Slavery was abolished. The North and South were reunited. 
.......Consider also the sprig of lilac that the narrator breaks from the bush: "A sprig, with its flower, I break" (line 17). This sprig represents Lincoln's broken body after a bullet entered his skull and mortally wounded him. But it also represents the rebirth of Lincoln's spirit, as well as the rebirth of the spirit of the soldiers who fell in the Civil War; for the sprig will grow back the following spring and perfume the air once again. 
.......The leaves of the lilac bush itself are symbols. Shaped like a heart, they represent love and compassion. 

Repetition (Anaphora)

.......Whitman frequently repeats words or groups of words in successive phrases or clauses (a figure of speech known as anaphora) to impart rhythm and musicality and to expand on an idea. Here are examples:

O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me! 
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul! (lines 7-11)

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black, 
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn; 
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour’d around the coffin (lines 33-41)

As we walk’d up and down in the dark blue so mystic,
As we walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell, as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop’d from the sky low down, as if to my side, (while the other stars all look’d on;) 
As we wander’d together the solemn night, (for something, I know not what, kept me from sleep;)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west, ere you went, how full you were of woe;
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze, in the cold transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul, in its trouble, dissatisfied, sank, as where you, sad orb

I hear your notes—I hear your call;
I hear—I come presently—I understand you (lines 57-67)

Internal Rhyme

.......There is no pattern of end rhyme in the poem. However, Whitman does use internal rhyme. Here are examples:

Ever-returning.spring! trinity sure to me you bring (line 4)
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone? (line 73)
till there on the prairies meeting (line 76)
Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes (line 82)
with many a line against the sky (line 87)
And the white skeletons of young men—I saw them (line 179)
Inversion

.......Another traditional poetic device Whitman uses is inversion of word order. 

with the perfume strong I love (line 14).............
Normal order: with the strong perfume that I love

A sprig, with its flower, I break. (line 17)
Normal order: I break a sprig, with its flower

every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprising (line 29)
Normal order: every grain uprising from . . . .

For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious (line 141)
Normal order: curious objects and knowledge

Loud in the pines and cedars dim (line 167)
Normal order: the dim pines and cedars

Archaisms

.......Still another traditional poetic device Whitman uses is the archaism. Following are examples:

If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die. (line 25)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west, ere you went, how full you were of woe (line 62)
Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.

Alliteration

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d (line 1)
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings (line 12)
the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris (line 27)
Anaphora

See the examples under Style and Literary Devices.

Apostrophe

O western orb, sailing the heaven! 
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since we walk’d (lines 55-56)
Irony
Spring—a time of year that brings joy and new life—becomes a time of death for the speaker, who says in the first stanza, "[I] yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring." 
Metaphor
the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night (line 2)
Comparison of Lincoln to a star

Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet (line 144)
Comparison of death to a mother

Onomatopoeia
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang (line 43)
Personification
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night (lines 121-124)
Study Questions and Writing Topics
 
  • In what ways is Whitman's poetry unlike that of other poets in his century, such as Poe, Shelley, and Keats? In what ways is it similar to their poetry?
  • Do you like poetry without end rhyme, such as "Lilacs," or do you prefer poetry such as Poe's "The Raven," which has end rhyme? Explain your answer in a short essay.
  • Does "gray débris" (line 27) symbolize the defeated Confederates? Explain your answer
  • Write a short poem about one of the themes in "Lilacs."
  • Identify two figures of speech in the following lines: "As we walk’d up and down in the dark blue so mystic, / As we walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night."
  • Which line of the poem says the wind causes ripples on the surface of the river? 
  • Line 13 says, in part: "the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green." Does this phrase refer to Lincoln? Explain your answer.
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