Last night we were up late, and one of the things we were doing was reading Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” – just reading it, trying to get our heads around it.
We are working up to seeing two movies, Lincoln and Django Unchained, and somehow, reading this poem has become part of our movie-going process.
The poem is about Abraham Lincoln, about his greatness, his sadness, his death, and the violence and suffering that war brings. Lincoln is the western star, fallen; he is the most beloved comrade; he is (and is not) a shy gray-brown bird singing from a thicket; he is, most of all, the soul and spirit of the hard-working, bountiful America Whitman sees rising all around him.
I am still re-reading and thinking about this poem, and probably will be doing that for a while. Among its wonders is that it is at once specific and hazy – in fact, fragmented. It makes me think a great deal about Lincoln, a man of the rough, crude, brutal, demanding old frontier and then of the thriving, eager, burgeoning nation: learning, growing, transforming, and at such terrible cost. We are still that country, bountiful and destructive, torn between ways of being.
…I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you,
But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain’d me,
The star my departing comrade holds and detains me.
Oh, just go read it. Read it here.