Sunday, February 12, 2006

Lincoln and Lilacs

On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born.

My favorite poem about Lincoln is "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" by Walt Whitman. The poem concerns Lincoln's death, but the anniversary of his birth made me think of this poem today.

While Whitman also wrote "O Captain! My Captain!" on Lincoln's death, giving voice to the nation's grief in more traditional form, I far prefer "Lilacs." It's a long free verse poem, one that conveys Whitman's personal grief at the loss of this influential president and expands outward to musings on death and the beauty of America. As with many of Whitman's poems, I disagree with some of his conclusions on death, but I also find much to identify with and appreciate. He expresses his struggle through the process of grieving with striking imagery and repetition.

(Lincoln's body was carried by train in a grand funeral procession through several states on its way back to Illinois, a procession that Whitman describes in the excerpts below.)

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,
And thought of him I love.

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.

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 debris,
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,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin,

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 list, 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,
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.

(read the whole poem)


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