The three main Symbols in Walt Whitman’s “ When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

Walt Whitman is famous for using imagery and symbolism to convey his own thought, feelings and strong emotions  to his readers. We could find  a number of recurring images in all his poems. The word ‘symbol’ is applied only to a word or a phrase that signifies an object or event which , in turn, signifies something. His symbols are flexible and ambiguous. The things and objects like grass, the sea, the bird and the stars are the recurring symbols in the poems of Whitman.

“ When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is an elegy on the death of the 16th President of American President, Abraham Lincoln. The poet uses three major symbols- the star , The lilac and the bird. It initiates the readers understand the real emotions of the poet. Lilac Flower is shown in North America. This species is widely cultivated for ornamental purposes and has been naturalized in other part of Europe . It is not referred to an aggressive species, found in the wild , in widely scattered sites, usually in the vicinity of past or present human habitations. The poet compares Abraham Lincoln with Lilac flower. The poet used cyclic structure in this poem. Every  symbol is interconnected with one another. It moves from the star to the lilac, then to the bird , next to the star and finally to the hermit – thrush. Lilac the flower symbolizes the eternal memory of Lincoln. The  Western star reminds the poet of the death of Lincoln. The hermit – thrush represents the voice of spirituality. All the three symbols introduced in the beginning of the poem recur at the end of the poem also.

These symbols are taken by the poet from the time of the year when Lincoln died. The spring season portrays a constantly recurring season of birth , growth and freshness. It is a timeless reminder of Lincoln’s death. The flower Lilac is a symbol fertility, refers to eternal memory and love. The bird as the voice of divine is a symbol of reconciliation. These three symbols can be analyzed  from another angle also. The flower Lilac refers for human love, and the hermit bird symbolizes the poet’s soul. The song of the bird is the music of death. It teaches men to  accept the reality of death though reality is a bitter truth.

Whitman’s symbols are praised for their traditional and particular. In this poem the star is a traditional symbol. When the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln started , the evening star Venus was shined in the sky. At the same time Lilacs were in rich and full bloom. Thus the image of star and lilac are linked together.

The symbol of the Hermit Thrush  is very important in this poem. It is a shy bird which can sing only “death’s outlet songs “ refers rebirth. It means one should aware of rebirth. The ‘heart shaped’ leaves of the lilac represents the fact  that his love for the dead hero( Abraham Lincoln) is fresh and unfading. The fragrance of the Lilacs flower symbolizes the affection and love for Abraham Lincoln.

Thus Walt Whitman handles imagery and symbolism excellently in his poetry.

Prof. R. Vanmathi

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