the use of symbols to represent an idea. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines
symbolism as “a loosely organized literary and
artistic movement that originated with a group of French poets in the late 19th
century, spread to painting and the theatre, and influenced the European and
American literatures of the 20th century to varying degrees. Symbolist artists
sought to express individual emotional experience through the subtle and
suggestive use of highly symbolized language.”
Whitman is known for symbolism in his poems. Critics have tried to find
reflections of his life in symbolism of his poems. Whitman’s
poetics is constructed around the organic principles of nature and her symbols
of spirit. Since the publication his first collection of poems The Leaves of Grass has been known for
offensive sexual themes. The main concepts on which Whitman builds his poems
are those connecting the polar opposites of the individual and society, man and
nature, body and soul, mater and spirit, and life and death. He suggests a
complex relations of all the elements embracing and implying many more. The
object then persuades and integrates the universe in the reader’s mind. It
tries to establish relationships between himself as an individual and the mass
of individuals in society, between himself and nature or the universe, between
his body and his soul, between his own life and death.
When lilacs last
in the dooryard Bloom’d is an example of a
poem which has beautiful symbols. Even though it is pastoral elegy on the death
of Abraham Lincoln, this poem does not directly mentions the president by name.
“Lincoln, in many ways, was the
“shepherd” of the American people during wartime, and his loss left
the North in the position of a flock without a leader” Whitman opines about
Lincoln. During the assassination of Lincoln, Whitman was in home at Brooklyn
with his mother. Lilac is like common grass to the native. When Whitman comes
out of his home he sees the lilac. The poem was composed later. And each time
he see lilac he laments the death of Lincoln and vice versa.
The first section of the poem introduces the three principal symbols of the poem-the
star, and the bird. Meaning of Whitman’s symbols is not fixed or constant. The evening star Venus is identified with
Lincoln but it can also be referred as poet’s grief for the dead. The lilac is a symbol of resurrection. Lilac indicates the rebirth of nature. Poet
says he will mourn with the return of each spring. Its colour purple denotes the passion of the
crucifixion and indicates the violence of Lincoln’s death. Bird symbolizes the reconciliation with death. Song of the
bird can be considered as soul’s voice. These three symbols as a whole can be considered as holy
trinity- the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The second stanza of the poem describes
the intense grief of the poet. ‘fallen star’, ‘star disappeared’- these
expressions which are to be associated with Lincoln and the ‘black mark that
hides the star’, ‘the cloud’ symbolizes death.
In the third stanza we can see the lilac bush
which imply life. It is also the symbol of love and affection. Heart shaped
rich green leaves of the lilac also represent love. The leaves are three in
number. This denotes the holy trinity. People’s love for Lincoln is indicated
by the leaves. The colour of lilac signifies physical life.
spring season occurs several times in the poem. Cycle of life, death and
rebirth is symbolized by this frequent use of spring. ‘Death’s outlet song of life’- can be seen as a song celebrating death
as a rebirth to a new spiritual life. The journey of Lincoln’s
coffin through a natural setting is described in the poem. This journey is
symbol of life’s journey or journey through life.
symbol ‘star’ comes in the eighth stanza. Here it is associated with rebirth,
sadness and woe. Also it acts as a deity who foresee and mourns the tragedy of
man. The luster or shine of the star overcomes by the night of the star.
In the last stanza poet sees the
universality of death. Death is described as the ‘dark mother’ and ‘strong
deliverers’. It is no longer seen as a cruel depriver of life. It signifies
rebirth and freedom to spirituality. At the last section ,all of the symbols the lilac ,the star
and the bird twine together with the poet’s chant ,to symbolize the true
significance of death as deliverers into immortality.
As above stated Whitman’s symbols
does not have constant meaning. Different people have different opinions about the symbols and its meanings.
Giving some remarks on Walt Whitman and his poetry.
were to carry much farther the merging of sensations, to the point of
transference of one into another, as of color into sound or smell. But
Whitman’s greatest act of pioneering was in helping the modern sensibility feel
at home in the natural world. He was able to suggest the interdependence of man
and Nature since his ‘trinity’ of symbols sprang from the forces of the earth,
no matter what spiritual implications they could rise to in his hymn to rebirth
through fertility…. In the capacity to suffer revealed in this poem, Whitman
moved farther away from the superficial innocence of evil with which Yeats has
F. O. Matthiessen
“Of all the days
of the war,’ Whitman recorded in Specimen Days, ‘there are two
especially I can never forget. Those were the day following the news, in New
York and Brooklyn, of that first Bull Run defeat, and the day of Abraham
Lincoln’s death. I was home in Brooklyn on both occasions. The day of the
murder we heard the news very early in the morning. Mother prepared
breakfast–and other meals afterward–as usual; but not a mouthful was eaten
all day by either of us. We each drank half a cup of coffee; that was all.
Little was said. We got every newspaper morning and evening, and the frequent
extras of that period, and pass’d them silently to each other.”
James E. Miller, Jr.
Literature of the United States II, 3rd edition
(Scott, Foresman 1953,1961,1966) 143