Walt Whitman's admiration of Abraham Lincoln bordered on infatuation. He saw in Lincoln's efforts to preserve the Union the most important meaning of the Civil War. In his journal, Specimen Days, he wrote of their encounters in the streets of Washington, D.C., during the early 1860s:
I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to and from his lodgings . . . . Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized easy-going gray horse, is dress'd in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man. . . .I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln's dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me, with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.
Describing the president's careworn face at his second inauguration, Whitman wrote of “all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, underneath the furrows. (I never see that man without feeling that he is one to become personally attach'd to, for his combination of purest, heartiest, tenderness, and native western form of manliness.”)
The assassination of his idol was greeted with great silence and depression in the Whitman household, and of course Whitman had to turn his poetic genius to commemorating this man who had meant so much to him. His first effort, written not long after Lincoln's death, was "O Captain, My Captain." In it he set aside his creative free verse for a return to traditional rhyme and meter and fashioned a sentimental and maudlin portrait of Lincoln as the fallen captain of a warship:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Nonetheless, because of its accessibility, it has become one of Whitman's best-known and best-loved poems, still taught in grammar school classrooms across the country.
Months later, Whitman was able to turn his grief into truly great poetry. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" was written as a pastoral elegy, comparable to the other great elegies of the nineteenth century, Shelley's "Adonais" and Tennyson's "In Memoriam." In his poem, Whitman uses seven of the standard devices of this traditional form: (1) the announcement that the speaker's friend is dead and to be mourned, (2) the sympathetic mourning of nature, (3) the placing of flowers on the bier, (4) a comment on the ironic revival of life in springtime despite the permanence of death, (5) a funeral procession, (6) a eulogy, and (7) a resolution of grief in a formula of comfort and reconciliation with nature.
The poem is built around three major sensory symbols: the visual fallen star (Lincoln), the olfactory scent of the lilacs with their heart-shaped leaves (the poet's love), and the aural song of the thrush (the dirge). Lincoln's star is obscured by night (death): "O the black murk that hides the star!" The funeral procession is a portrait of the cortege that carried his body away from the capital for burial, winding first through lanes and streets, then from railroad station to railroad station, accompanied by the torches of mourners lining the tracks and "the tolling, tolling bells' perpetual clang." Flowers are placed on the bier to soften grief. The poet's sprig of lilac is accompanied by symbols of public sorrow: "O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies." The poet seeks a way to express his personal feeling: "And how shall I deck my song for the large, sweet soul that has gone? / And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?" Ultimately, the thrush's song provides an eloquent reconciliation with mortality:
Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love--but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Finally, amid memories of the great conflict through which Lincoln guided the nation, the poet lays to rest "the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands."
In his later years Whitman continued to pay tribute to his hero as a son might to his beloved father. He spoke repeatedly of "the tragic splendor" of Lincoln's death, "purging, illuminating all." His Lincoln lectures were well attended and were part of the effort to turn the sixteenth president into a secular American saint, whom Whitman described as having a "religious nature of the amplest, deepest-rooted, loftiest kind." To Whitman, Lincoln was "the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality" in America. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” remains not only his finest tribute to Lincoln, but one of Whitman's most beautiful and successful poems.