This 1865 poem is part of a series of pieces written after Lincoln’s assassination. While it does not display all the conventions of the form, this is nevertheless considered to be a pastoral elegy: a poem of mourning that makes use of elaborate conventions drawn from the natural world and rustic human society. Virgil is the most prominent classical practitioner of the form; Milton’s “Lycidas” and Shelley’s “Adonais” are the two best-known examples in the English tradition. One of the most important features of the pastoral elegy is the depiction of the deceased and the poet who mourns him as shepherds. While the association is not specifically made in this poem, it must surely have been in Whitman’s mind as he wrote: Lincoln, in many ways, was the “shepherd” of the American people during wartime, and his loss left the North in the position of a flock without a leader. As in traditional pastoral elegies, nature mourns Lincoln’s death in this poem, although it does so in some rather unconventional ways (more on that in a moment). The poem also makes reference to the problems of modern times in its brief, shadowy depictions of Civil War battles. The natural order is contrasted with the human one, and Whitman goes so far as to suggest that those who have died violent deaths in war are actually the lucky ones, since they are now beyond suffering.
Above all this is a public poem of private mourning. In it Whitman tries to determine the best way to mourn a public figure, and the best way to mourn in a modern world. In his resignation at the end of the poem, and in his use of disconnected motifs, he suggests that the kind of ceremonial poetry a pastoral elegy represents may no longer have a place in society; instead, symbolic, intensely personal forms must take over.
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is composed of three separate yet simultaneous poems. One follows the progress of Lincoln’s coffin on its way to the president’s burial. The second stays with the poet and his sprig of lilac, meant to be laid on the coffin in tribute, as he ruminates on death and mourning. The third uses the symbols of a bird and a star to develop an idea of a nature sympathetic to yet separate from humanity. The progression of the coffin is followed by a sad irony. Mourners, dressed in black and holding offerings of flowers, turn out in the streets to see Lincoln’s corpse pass by. The Civil War is raging, though, and many of these people have surely lost loved ones of their own. Yet their losses are subsumed in a greater national tragedy, which in its publicness and in the fact that this poem is being written as part of the mourning process, is set up to be a far greater loss than that of their own family members. In this way the poem implicitly asks the question, “What is the worth of a man? Are some men worth more than others?” The poet’s eventual inability to mourn, and the depictions of anonymous death on the battlefields, suggest that something is wrong here.
The poet vacillates on the nature of symbolic mourning. At times he seems to see his offering of the lilac blossom as being symbolically given to all the dead; at other moments he sees it as futile, merely a broken twig. He wonders how best to do honor to the dead, asking how he would decorate the tomb. He suggests that he would fill it with portraits of everyday life and everyday men. This is a far cry from the classical statuary and elaborate floral arrangements usually associated with tombs. The language in the poem follows a similar shift. In the first stanzas the language is formal and at times even archaic, filled with exhortations and rhetorical devices. By the end much of the ceremoniousness has been stripped away; the poet offers only “lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of [his] soul.” Eventually the poet simply leaves behind the sprig of lilac, and “cease[s] from [his] song,” still unsure of just how to mourn properly.
The final image of the poem is of “the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.” All has been worked through save nature, which remains separate and beyond. The death-song of the bird expresses an understanding and a beauty that Whitman, even while he incorporates it into his poem, cannot quite master for himself. Unlike the pastoral elegies of old, which use a temporary rift with nature to comment on modernity, this one shows a profound and permanent disconnection between the human and natural worlds. “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” mourns for Lincoln in a way that is all the more profound for seeing the president’s death as only a smaller, albeit highly symbolic, tragedy in the midst of a world of confusion and sadness.