Recently, Van snagged a paperback of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.  The first poem he turned to, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," caught his attention within the first two stanzas:


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,

And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,                                  

I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

 Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.


 "If you have time, find out what star he's talking about, Tamara," he suggested.

 Written following Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the poem is not simply an elegy for the Great Emancipator but also for the Civil War dead:  "nor for you, for one alone,/ Blossoms and branches to coffins all I bring."  It's one of those poems high school seniors and college English majors are forced to submit to – a certifiable "classic" we're told.  Being suspicious by nature, I wasn't going to let this poem off easily.  Whitman was going to have to work to earn my respect.  At the very least, he was going to have to be accurate in his astronomy and his botany.

 Mapping the night sky for the evening Lincoln was assassinated, I learned the "star" Whitman refers to "droop'd in the western sky in the night" was Venus.  Mercury was also low in the sky the night of Lincoln's death, April 15th.  Only a few times a year is Mercury observable in the evening or predawn sky; at those times, it can shine as brightly as a first magnitude star.  But Venus's -4.37 magnitude clearly overpowers his at .73.  Mars is in that evening sky too, a little higher than Venus, standing in Gemini with Castor and Pollux, but his -1.24 magnitude doesn't approach half of hers.

 "But if he was living in Brooklyn," I reasoned, 'lilacs wouldn't have been blooming in mid-April."  I knew they bloomed in Washington, D.C., around that time, but I couldn't recall the dates of his residence there.  A quick check showed, he'd been in D.C. when Lincoln had been assassinated, so Whitman had passed both of my admittedly silly tests.

 Reading through the poem, I couldn't help continuing to wonder when exactly had the poem been written?  Whitman seems slippery on the subject.  Consider again the first stanza:

 

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,

And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,

I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

 

He doesn't specify that the lilacs are blooming as he speaks; in fact, one has cause to believe from his phrasing they have finished blooming and that he's remembering an earlier time.  To make the issue of time even more muddled, he's imagining in the next breath how he will always mourn with "ever-returning spring."

 He seems both deliberate in his placement and timing of the poem, but at the same time keeps dodging any definite reference.  The extended address he makes to Venus continues to confuse matters:

 

O western orb sailing the heaven,

Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walk'd,

As I walk'd in silence the transparent shadowy night,

As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night,

As you droop'd from the sky low down as if to my side, (while the other stars all look'd on,)

As we wander'd together the solemn night, (for something I know not what kept me from sleep,)

As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe,

As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,

As I watch'd where you pass'd and was lost in the netherward black of the night,

As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,

Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.

 

It could be one night's walk he's referring to here.  With twilight falling at 8 p.m., the planet has slipped below the western horizon by 9:30.  Or it could be that he's writing this lament after Venus no longer lights the evening sky.  By the time of Lincoln's assassination, Venus had been enjoying her 'evening apparition' for 5 months.  In another month, by mid-May, she would disappear in the Sun's glare.  Her absence could be another he is mourning, just as he's mourning Lincoln's death and the passing of the lilac's blossoms.   The hints of different time frames tease us:  "Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walk'd." 

 

It’s the lack of definite time that comforts him.  Standing in this liminal space, he asks "O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?" and creates a chant celebrating death.  Finished, he sees that the "debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war . . . were not as was thought":

 

They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,

The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd,

And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd,

And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.

 

This realization allows him to heal:  to "leave the lilac with heart-shaped leaves," to "cease from my song for thee/ From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,/ O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night."

 In pondering these shifting time sequences, my respect for Whitman's dexterity grew.  His "trinity," as he names it of lilac, star and "thought of him I love" are perfect vehicles for what he is attempting to capture:  the perennial, returning cycle of the material world, the inscrutable, unchanging heavenly sphere, and the way art can transform the two:  "Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,/ There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim."