When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

By Walt Whitman


“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is a deeply evocative poem written by the American poet Walt Whitman. This piece, penned in the spring of 1865, serves as an elegy for President Abraham Lincoln, though Lincoln’s name is never directly mentioned. Composed in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, which occurred during a particularly vibrant spring, the poem not only mourns the president but also meditates on themes of grief, renewal, and the relentless march of time.

Whitman, a figure central to the American Romantic movement and often considered one of the pioneers of free verse, uses this style to great effect in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. The poem is characterized by its free-flowing verse and lack of a strict meter, which allows Whitman’s poignant observations and raw emotional landscape to flow unimpeded. It falls under the genre of pastoral elegy, subtly weaving natural imagery with personal and national mourning. 🌿💔

Meaning of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Opening section

The poem begins with the speaker noticing the blooming lilacs and a falling star, which immediately sets the tone of an auspicious, yet somber, spring. The lilacs symbolize the beginning of life or renewal, juxtaposed with the falling star, typically a symbol of death. These images reflect the dual themes of life and death that permeate the entire piece:

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.

Mid section

In the middle sections of the poem, Whitman delves deeper into his grief, reflecting on the procession bearing Lincoln’s body through the blooming country. This section bridges the personal with the national, using the imagery of a journey to parallel Whitman’s own emotional journey through grief:

O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd—O the black murk that hides the star!

Concluding section

The concluding part of the poem features a return to the lilacs, now seen as a symbol of remembrance and mourning. Whitman describes picking a sprig of lilac and offering it as a token of respect and remembrance, a gesture that signifies acceptance and a personal connection to the cycle of life and death:

I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring,
I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.

In-depth Analysis

Stanza Dissection and Analysis —

  • Stanza 1: The imagery of lilacs and the star set the emotional tone. The use of nature as a central theme embodies the pastoral elegy tradition, with the natural cycle mirroring human life and death.
    • Literary Techniques: Symbolism (lilacs and star), Imagery (nature scenes)
    • Syntax: Long, flowing lines typical of Whitman’s free verse, creating a sense of ongoing, unstoppable force.
    • Diction: The choice of words like “mourn’d” emphasizes a deep, personal grief.
    • Figurative Language: Metaphor (the star as Lincoln, the lilacs as ongoing life and memory).
  • Stanza 3: This stanza begins to directly address the reader, inviting them into the shared space of national grief. Whitman’s use of direct address enhances the communal aspect of mourning.
    • Literary Techniques: Apostrophe (directly addressing absent or abstract figures).
    • Syntax: Questions and exclamations increase the emotional intensity.
    • Diction: Emotive words like “tearful” and “powerful” contribute to the poem’s mournful tone.
    • Figurative Language: Personification (giving emotional attributes to night and the star).
  • Stanza 5: Here, Whitman describes his personal ritual of mourning—picking a sprig of lilac. This act symbolizes not only personal loss but the collective mourning of a nation, intertwining the natural with the historical.
    • Literary Techniques: Symbolism (lilac sprig as a token of remembrance).
    • Syntax: Shorter sentences convey solemnity and reflection.
    • Diction: The choice of “sprig” and “communing” suggest a delicate, spiritual interaction.
    • Figurative Language: Synecdoche (using a part, the lilac sprig, to represent the whole experience of mourning).

— Each stanza builds upon the themes of life, death, and renewal, weaving a complex tapestry of personal and collective experience. Whitman uses the natural cycle as a backdrop to explore these universal themes.

Poetic Devices used in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Alliteration“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” – Repeated ‘l’ sounds create a soft, lamenting tone.
Assonance“O powerful western fallen star” – Repeated ‘o’ sounds enhance the mournful, haunting atmosphere.
Metaphor“The great star early droop’d” – Referring to Lincoln as a fallen star.
SymbolismLilacs represent renewal and mourning; the star symbolizes the fallen president.
Imagery“The drooping star in the west” – Visual elements evoke a sense of decline and setting.
Personification“O moody, tearful night” – Attributes human emotions to the night, intensifying the mood.
SynecdocheUsing a “sprig of lilac” to represent the whole act of mourning and remembrance.
AnaphoraRepetition of “O” at the beginning of lines in several stanzas emphasizes the emotional plea.
Free VerseLack of a consistent metrical pattern, which mirrors the natural, flowing thoughts of mourning.
ApostropheDirectly addressing the night and the star, inviting them into a dialogue with the mourner.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – FAQs

What inspired Walt Whitman to write “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”?
Whitman wrote this poem as an elegy following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The spring setting and natural imagery serve to frame his deep sorrow and the nation’s mourning.

How does the structure of the poem contribute to its themes?
The free verse structure allows Whitman to explore themes of grief and renewal without the constraints of traditional meter, mirroring the natural, often unpredictable, processes of grieving and healing.

What role do the lilacs play in the poem?
Lilacs symbolize both the renewal of life and the presence of death. They bloom annually, which Whitman uses as a motif for ongoing remembrance and the cycle of life and death.

Why does Whitman use a star as a symbol in the poem?
The star represents Abraham Lincoln—a guiding light that has disappeared. Its setting in the west symbolizes Lincoln’s passing and the end of an era.

Can this poem be considered an example of pastoral elegy?
Yes, it fits the genre of pastoral elegy as it laments the death of a public figure while drawing heavily on nature imagery to express themes of mourning and renewal.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d Study Guide

Exercise: Identify and list all poetic devices used in the following verse of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

“I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”


  • Anaphora: Repetition of the phrase “mourn’d” and “mourn” emphasizes the ongoing nature of the speaker’s grief.
  • Symbolism: The “ever-returning spring” symbolizes renewal and the cyclical nature of life, which contrasts with the permanence of death.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of the ‘m’ sound in “mourn’d” and “mourn” adds a melodic quality to the reading, reflecting the poem’s lyrical nature.

This comprehensive guide should help students and enthusiasts gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of Whitman’s masterful use of language and themes in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. 🌸✨