Emerging Civil War has featured “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” many times over our ten-year history. It is a favorite of many of our writers and has been printed several times already. It can be found here, as well as other places on the web. Rather than reprint the poem, I thought I would discuss its context.
It follows the train–dubbed the Lincoln Funeral Train–as it chugs back across an almost identical route–the one taken four and a half years ago by the Lincoln Inaugural Express. The train bears President Abraham Lincoln’s remains as well as those of his young son Willie. Lincoln is referred to as a “powerful western falling star,” mourned at the return of every spring. But, as birds and flowers return every spring, Lincoln will not. “Day and night journeys a coffin.”
The scenery of northwestern America is described: “lanes and streets . . . crepe-veil’d women standing.” The poet offers a single sprig of lilac as a stand-in for all the mourning the train will pass in its journey to Springfield, Illinois. Death is given many lines–its inevitableness, its finality–“all over bouquets of roses.”
Finally, Whitman comes to the Civil War. All the death he has seen, all the deaths Lincoln has imagined, Whitman weaves them together “Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul.” The funeral train honors all those deaths as it brings Lincoln back to Springfield. Many versions of this poem are done as music–sort of funeral dirges or part of a requiem mass. Look some up, read phrases aloud to yourself. Whitman is a powerful voice for his time and for ours.