Blooming Trinity Essay, Research Paper
October 11, 2000
In the poem ?When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom?d?, by Walt Whitman, three important symbols are introduced. These symbols of a star, the lilac, and a bird exhibit Whitman?s transcendentalism and serve as an allusion to Abraham Lincoln?s life and death. Whitman?s poetry, through these symbols, opens a window to the prevailing social attitudes, moral beliefs, and cultural disposition of his time through his allusions to President Lincoln. To understand Whitman?s poetry one must first know something about the poet himself.
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in Long Island New York. Whitman disliked the idea of becoming a carpenter like his father and opted to seek his own fortune. The publishing of Leaves of Grass, Whitman?s major literary work, was a major turning point in Whitman?s life. ?Before, he was a teacher, printer, journalist, carpenter, and more. After, no matter what else he did, he was a poet? (Wiener 14). Whitman?s strong opposition to slavery gave him problems later on as in life. Langston Hughes relates when he says ?[Whitman] had been an editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, but was fired there in 1948, because he refused to support Governor Cass of Michigan who advocated the continuation of slavery?(Wiener 196). Whitman greatly influenced many people of his time period but also was influenced by other writers. Russell Blankenship, a professor at the University of Washington, relates this fact when he says that Whitman was ?influenced by the revered American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson? (Wiener 106). Emerson is commonly known as a transcendentalist. A transcendentalist is a person who is ?idealistic and optimistic. They believed they could find answers to whatever they were seeking. All they had to do was learn to read, through their intuition, the external symbols of nature and translate them into spiritual facts?(Brulatour). Whitman?s transcendentalism is significant in ?When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom?d? because of the use of three symbols that serve as an allusion to Abraham Lincoln?s life and death.
President Abraham Lincoln was one of our country?s greatest presidents. Lincoln?s humble beginnings and rise to become arguably the most powerful person in the United States are a great representation of the American idea that anyone can become anything he aspires to be. One of Lincoln?s major contributions was his involvement in the Civil War. As commander and chief of the Union army, Lincoln had the responsibility of working with the generals of the union armies to defeat the confederate armies. Lincoln, like Whitman, also felt that slavery was an abomination and ?on January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.? (White House.) After the Union army won the war, President Lincoln was assassinated while watching a play in Ford?s Theatre, Washington. The nation?s mourning was displayed as ?a crowd of mourners gathered at each railway station as the funeral train rolled westward toward the Illinois prairie, to Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln was buried.?(Groiler). Whitman?s poem, ?When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom?d,? attempts to show the mourning of a nation as well as Whitman?s personal sadness.
In the poem ?Where Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom?d? the lilac has generated diverse interpretations. When I first read ?Where Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom?d? I thought of the lilacs as representing beauty and love, presumably for the late president. Yet, with further reading, I found that there are several other interpretations. Edwin Miller, a professor of English at New York University and recognized Whitman scholar, interprets the ?sprig as the season of rebirth, the sense of smell (The ?mastering odor?), day and physical life, love as the remembrance of death (the lilac as a floral tribute on the coffin)? (Miller 187). Another interpretation, by Kenneth Burke, author of ?Policy Made Personal: Whitman?s Verse and Prose ? Salient Traits?, states ?. . . the broken ?sprig? of lilac as the star ?dropt in the night?; the ?perfume strong? of the lilacs ?in the dooryard fronting an old farm-house,? the odor of the ?bouquets? placed upon the casket,? ( Miller 188). Both interpretations by Burke and by Miller indicate that the lilac is most likely representative of the flowers placed on the casket at Lincoln?s death. Through the use of the lilac in the poem we come to understand that it is a naturalistic symbol with deeper meaning. Whitman?s transcendentalism displays itself in the poem by the use of the lilac as a representation to Lincoln?s death.
Another symbol in ?Where Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom?d? is a bird described as a ?solitary?, ?gray-brown? thrush. When I first read ?Where Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom?d,? my interpretations of the bird included the possibility of Lincoln?s spirit, freedom, or even his mannerisms. I thought of the thrush and Lincoln?s mannerisms because Lincoln appeared as a solitary individual in the majority of the pictures I have seen him in. I went back to my readings and found that in Miller?s interpretation ?the bird has been associated with love, insight as knowledge of death, the ?thought of mortality? and the poetic process itself (the bird as the ?brother? of the protagonist)? (Miller 187). Burke takes another point of view when he relates that ?the thrush also has a complex symbolic purpose: it is death, love, poetic process, but more. Traditionally the bird is associated with the flight of the soul after the death of the body? (Miller 189). I especially admired Burke?s input with the flight of the soul. I concluded that the thrush in this poem could be seen as a symbol of President Lincoln?s spirit or soul and the ?warbling song? of the thrush as either a mourning song or perhaps a song celebrating a great spirit.
The last of the three symbols in ?Where Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom?d? is the star. The symbol of the ?Western Star? is obviously a direct relation to President Lincoln since Lincoln was from Illinois, which was a western state at that time. I also thought of the star as something that was illuminating, majestic, or perhaps a reference to the American flag. Miller?s interpretation was that the star ?has elicited greater agreement because of its obvious association with the President?s death, although the symbol has been extended to included death itself or the Western conception of death? (Miller 187). After reading this interpretation, I also thought that the star could be a representation of the cycle of life. The morning: relating to birth and childhood; the day: relating to adulthood and old age; and the starry night: death and spirits. Burke states that ?the ?drooping? star, the broken ?sprig? of lilac, and the protagonist?s soul before the assassination which ?sank? as the star? dropt in the night? (Miller 189). The soul of President Lincoln was not the only thing that ?sank?, both the nation?s and Whitman?s moral were also unfavorably affected by death of the President.
In ?When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom?d? Whitman speaks of a ?trinity?. The trinity is usually recognized as a symbol of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost but in ?When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom?d? the trinity is one symbol representing three more. The symbols of the lilac, the thrush, and the star come together into one trinity to show Whitman?s transcendentalism and serve as an allusion to Abraham Lincoln?s life and death.
Brulatour, Meg. What is American Transcendentalism? 1 Oct. 2000