When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

We’re about to begin April’s National Poetry Month in the U. S., but I’m going to begin celebrating #NPM2018 today with a piece that’s a good way to start things off, the opening two sections of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

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We’re aiming to present even more audio pieces than usual this April
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National Poetry Month isn’t just for American poems or for American poets, but if it was, Whitman would be all the more inescapable. In the middle of the 19th Century, he and Emily Dickinson forged two original styles whose sounds and tactics can still be found in contemporary verse—Dickinson, with small lines in small poems that bind-up with puzzles immensities; Whitman with long lines and epic poems that offer a catalog of exultation. One sees a single, small thing and says it represents the universe, the other beholds the diversity of the world and says it’s really one thing. Complementary opposites.

Both were working at a prodigious pace during the 1860s, during America’s great Civil War. On April 14th of 1865 Abraham Lincoln, the US President during that war, was shot. The next day he died. Within weeks Whitman had produced the first published version of this poem along with other poems about Lincoln and the ending of the Civil War which he published as “Drum Taps.”  It would not be like Whitman to hold his thoughts on those great events inside. In contrast, Tennyson’s epic elegy on the death of a beloved friend, “In Memoriam”  took him more than 15 years before he published it.

At over 200 lines in its entirety, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”  taken as a whole, would exceed my usual mode here. I prefer my audio pieces more the length of the 45 RPM single records of my youth. So today, I present only the first two sections of Whitman’s poem. Whitman’s voice changes over the course of this long poem, but in these opening sections Whitman (albeit in free verse) is sounding somewhat like the poets his modernism would break from. Save for the absence of rhyme, his language here would not sound out of place in Tennyson (or even the earlier Romantics, like the Shelley of “Adonais.”)

Whitman's Parent's House

Is this the dooryard? Whitman was visiting his mother’s house when he heard Lincoln had died.
He stepped outside and saw the spring lilacs in bloom.

 

I did the same thing, presenting only the intro section, last April for the poem I believe is most responsible for April being National Poetry Month, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland,”  which begins memorably “April is the cruelest month…” Those that can finish that first sentence may recall it continues “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” So, Whitman’s elegy and Eliot’s poetic apotheosis of High-Modernism written over 50 years later, both begin in April, and with lilacs.

We’ll be revisiting territories in “The Wasteland”  later this April, but today you can start where Whitman started his poem, and from where Eliot got some of his inspiration for his. Musically, this one is fairly simple, but I hope effective: acoustic guitar and piano with a little low synthesizer groan eventually joining in. Use the player below to hear it.

 

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