E222 WALT WHITMAN QUESTIONS, CSU FULLERTON
QUESTIONS ON OUR READINGS FOR E222: WALT WHITMAN THROUGH HENRY JAMES
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"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (Norton Vol. C 79-85).
"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"
1. In the first four sections of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," we are introduced to the poem's three main symbols: the lilac bush, the planet Venus, and the Hermit Thrush songbird. What does the speaker tell us about each in these initial sections, and what do these three objects appear to mean to him at this early point in the poem?
2. In sections 5-7 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," we encounter a traditional elegiac "funeral procession," which also opens onto a very Whitman-like panorama of people and places. What does the poet mention in this light -- what people and what places? How would you describe the balance here between nature and humanity, and why might it matter to the poem's larger movement what that balance is?
3. In sections 5-7 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," how do you interpret the poet's gift of a "lilac sprig" to adorn the coffin of President Lincoln? How does the speaker transform the significance of that act when he arrives at section 7?
4. Although Venus, the lilac bush, and the Hermit Thrush are often said to constitute the symbolic Holy Trinity of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," to them we might add not only the "harsh surrounding cloud" first mentioned in Section 2 but also the coffin and funeral train of President Lincoln, which are mentioned in section 5 and elsewhere. (The train took about two weeks to travel from Washington, D.C. to the president's burial site in Springfield, Illinois, and thousands paid their respects as it slowly made its 1,600 mile way to Springfield.) How does the poet introduce the coffin in this section of the poem, and to what effect? In responding, it would be best to consider not only the section's content but also its structure.
5. In section 8 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet addresses the planet Venus as a portent, and then from sections 9-13 he listens to the Hermit Thrush singing, but is detained by both Venus and the strong scent of the lilac bush in spring. How do you interpret the significance of this delay? Why, that is, can't he just go to the swamp and join up with the songbird, which we can tell he longs to do?
6. In sections 10-11 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet raises a key issue about finding the appropriate form to express his emotions about the death of Lincoln. Why is this question of how to fit one's poetic forms to one's expressive passion an important one to raise? What response does he give to his own question in these sections, and how do you interpret that response? (Consider in part the catalogs of people and places that he now mentions – this is a regular feature of Whitman's poetry, which embraces panoramic visions and large perspectives or "vistas.")
7. Section 14 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is vital because there the poet attains a kind of ultimate insight, an epiphany or moment of intense realization. What has he come to understand, and what seems to be the immediate catalyst for that insight?
8. Again in Section 14 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," where does the poet go as soon as the understanding he needs comes to him? What happens when he gets there – what becomes possible now?
9. Still in Section 14 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet finally has the right words to utter for his "song," and now he freely chants them (the italics in our text mark the song itself). The addressee is obviously Death. What relationship does the poet's song establish with Death? What is the poet's present attitude towards that usually grim entity?
10. In Section 15 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet envisions the torn battle flags, wreckage, and broken bodies of the Civil War (the latest estimates by historian J. David Hacker run to about 750,000! The population at the time would have been about 31.4 million people). Why does this vision follow the utterance of the poet's song back in Section 14? What transformation has taken place in the poet's perspective on loss?
11. In Section 16 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet is finally able to cease from singing and join the Hermit Thrush in its swampy home. By now, in what relationship do the poem's major symbols stand to one another and to the poet himself? Moreover, in what sense does the poem both return to the thought of President Lincoln and transcend or transmute that thought into a broader vision of loss and recompense?