Literature Study GuidesLeaves Of GrassWhen Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloomd Summary

Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd | Summary



Whitman's speaker mourns the loss of his "great star." He breaks a sprig from his robust lilac bush and goes to a funeral where he places the sprig on a coffin. He reminiscences about his last encounter with the star when the star was full of "woe." He hears the sad song of death from a bird in the swamp and ponders how he should honor his fallen star and which pictures he should hang "on the chamber walls" "to adorn the burial-house" of his love.

He tells the bird to sing on, though he is not yet ready to. Soon however, he joins in the song. He sees visions of armies and a "victorious song" of death. He keeps the memory of those dead he loved so well.


Whitman wrote "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" as an elegy for President Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated. Lincoln is the "great star disappear'd." Whitman mourns him along with the rest of the American people—"the thousand voices rising strong and solemn," in an exemplary democratic form of grief. He uses anaphora in sections of exceptional mourning, such as Section 2 (a five-line lament where all lines start with "O") and in Sections 8 and 11.

The lilacs are plants that represent the cycle of growth and life, a cycle that inevitably ends in death. In Section 1, Whitman speaks directly to this cycle, the "ever-returning spring" bringing lilacs every year. In Section 3, he describes the lilac in the prime of its life, "tall-growing" with "every leaf a miracle." In Section 6, he places a "sprig of lilac" on Lincoln's coffin and declares he would "break the sprigs from the bushes" and come "with loaded arms" to pour on the coffins of death. And by Section 16, when he finally understands death, Whitman's speaker carries the lilac inside his soul.

But how does he come to understand and accept death? He does it with the help of a solitary "gray-brown" bird that becomes his guide to mystical awakening. The bird first appears in Section 4, singing the "song of the bleeding throat." But because he is consumed with grief, Whitman's speaker does not listen to the bird's notes until Section 9. He declares to the bird in Section 13 that he hears only him and "yet the star holds [him]." The speaker is not ready to give up his grief. By Section 14, however, the speaker and the bird sing a duet about the quiet beauty of death: "And the body gratefully nestling close to thee." And finally in Section 16, the bird joins him with the lilac and the star. This journey has been a comfort to the speaker as Whitman hopes it will be a comfort to all grieving readers.

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