Probably the lilacs have been in bloom for a while now even here in Minnesota, but I have been away and only today smelled them for the first time.
And as usual I thought of the first lines of “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” Walt Whitman’s love song to the dead Abraham Lincoln.
The incantatory quality makes it easy to believe in the yearly return of the spring “trinity” which offers the consoling permanence of nature and memory in the face of death. But one member of the trinity calls the consolation into question: the great western star is of course Venus, which is sometimes the evening star, sometimes the morning star, and sometimes invisible behind the sun. It happened to be an evening star in both the spring of 1865 and that of 1866, but its presence in the west is by no means a sure aspect of ever-returning spring (I believe it was absent in 1867, for example). It is a sad reality that the thrush and the poet’s memory are ultimately no more reliable than the motions of a wandering star.
Here is the whole poem:
As topics for poems go, praise of a political leader has to be one of the least promising, right up there with instructions for plumbing repair. Pablo Neruda was able to turn artichokes, watermelons, and socks into classic poems, but I don’t think anybody is that keen to hear his eulogy for Stalin. Of course WW was more fortunate, or less stupid, in his choice of political figure, but you’ll notice that there is very little in the poem about Lincoln’s accomplishments–singing “for the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands” seems rather more personal. This allows the poet to steer clear of prosaic wonkiness, but also runs the risk of a descent into creepy North Korean Beloved Leader bathos.
Walt’s Old Testament-style parallelisms make this confluence of personal and political seem more natural, as it would be if he were talking about King David or Samson. The paean is also easier to tak ebecause it says nothing about victory, at least not that I noticed. How deeply un-American, to praise Lincoln for his sweetness and wisdom but not for his success.
There is also something harder to pin down–I think it is the conflicted stance that is so characteristic of Whitman, the bold, frank singer of America, proud of his barbaric yawp, imagining himself to be one of the roughs, and also the furtive, shy, longing observer, the woman in “Song of Myself” who watches from hiding as the nude young men cavort in the water.
It is striking that in such a public poem as “Lilacs,” Whitman’s alter ego, his “brother” in song, is the shy thrush who sings his song from the hidden recesses; it is hard not to think of the hidden woman in “Song of Myself.” When I first encountered Whitman I often found him off-putting because I mistook his confident pose for thoughtless cock-of-the-walk boosterism, but as Prufrock would say, that is not it at all. Whitman must have known that he would strike his readers as queer in every way, from his (at the time) bizarre meter to his sassy posture on the frontispiece to his odes to “we two boys” bonding. Now I am inclined to say that his claim to “sing America” was not bravado but courage.