Outside the front window, Mom’s old lilac bush has bloomed out with a profusion it hasn’t shown in years. Its bluish-purple blossoms and long canes sway on a breeze that carries its delicate perfume.
Lilacs are the keynote for Walt Whitman’s mournful poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Whitman wrote this poem as an elegy for President Abraham Lincoln, who was shot at Ford’s Theater by the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth late on the evening of April 14th, 1865, dying the next morning.
When word came of Lincoln’s death, Whitman was home visiting his mother in Brooklyn, New York. He had spent the war as a nurse in various military hospitals and in several low-paying jobs in government departments in D.C. His immediate reaction to the news of Lincoln’s murder is detailed in Geoffrey Ward, Ric Burns and Ken Burns’ companion book to the PBS series The Civil War:
Mother prepared breakfast–and other meals–as usual, but not a mouthful was eaten all day by either of us. We each drank half a cup of coffee; that was all. Little was said. We got every newspaper, morning and evening. . .and passed them silently to each other.
That April morning, lilacs were blooming outside his mother’s door. We all have an image that sticks in our minds at times of great grief, and for Whitman, it was lilacs:
. . .mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you, O death.)
Lilies are the traditional flowers of mourning, but Whitman found no inspiration in them. I, after reading and rereading his poem, can no longer look at lilacs as merely the lovely fragile flowers they are: they are, thanks to Whitman, the most melancholy of flowers to me.
Painting: “Lilacs in a Window” (1880) by the American Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt.