'President Lincoln's Burial Hymn' by Walt Whitman

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When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard 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.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!10
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash'd
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume
strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich
A sprig, with its flower, I break.

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary, the thrush,20
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat!
Death's outlet song of life--(for well, dear brother, I know
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would'st surely die.)

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes, and through old woods, (where lately the violets peep'd
from the ground, spotting the gray debris;)
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes--passing the
endless grass;
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the
dark-brown fields uprising;
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards;30
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop'd flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil'd women,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit--with the silent sea of faces, and the
unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong
and solemn;40
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour'd around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs--Where amid these you
With the tolling, tolling bells' perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

(Nor for you, for one, alone;
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:
For fresh as the morning--thus would I carol a song for you, O sane
and sacred death.

All over bouquets of roses,
O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies;50
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you, and the coffins all of you, O death.)

O western orb, sailing the heaven!
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since we walk'd,
As we walk'd up and down in the dark blue so mystic,
As we walk'd in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell, as you bent to me night after
As you droop'd from the sky low down, as if to my side, (while the
other stars all look'd on;)60
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, ere you
went, how full you were of woe;
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze, in the cold
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
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.

Sing on, there in the swamp!
O singer bashful and tender! 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;70
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
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?

Sea-winds, blown from east and west,
Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea, till
there on the prairies meeting:
These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,
I perfume the grave of him I love.

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,80
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?

Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking
sun, burning, expanding the air;
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of
the trees prolific;
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a
wind-dapple here and there;
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky,
and shadows;
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks of
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen
homeward returning.

Lo! body and soul! this land!90
Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides,
and the ships;
The varied and ample land--the South and the North in the light--
Ohio's shores, and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies, cover'd with grass and corn.

Lo! the most excellent sun, so calm and haughty;
The violet and purple morn, with just-felt breezes;
The gentle, soft-born, measureless light;
The miracle, spreading, bathing all--the fulfill'd noon;
The coming eve, delicious--the welcome night, and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.

Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird!100
Sing from the swamps, the recesses--pour your chant from the bushes;
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.

Sing on, dearest brother--warble your reedy song;
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.

O liquid, and free, and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer!
You only I hear......yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart;)
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.

Now while I sat in the day, and look'd forth,
In the close of the day, with its light, and the fields of spring,
and the farmer preparing his crops,110
In the large unconscious scenery of my land, with its lakes and
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb'd winds, and the
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the
voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides,--and I saw the ships how they sail'd,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy
with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its
meals and minutia of daily usages;
And the streets, how their throbbings throbb'd, and the cities pent--
lo! then and there,
Falling upon them all, and among them all, enveloping me with the
Appear'd the cloud, appear'd the long black trail;
And I knew Death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death. 120

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hands of
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night, that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the
To the solemn shadowy cedars, and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me;
The gray-brown bird I know, receiv'd us comrades three;
And he sang what seem'd the carol of death, and a verse for him I

From deep secluded recesses,130
From the fragrant cedars, and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held, as if by their hands, my comrades in the night;
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.


Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,140
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.

Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?

Then I chant it for thee--I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come

Approach, strong Deliveress!
When it is so--when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,150
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee--adornments and feastings
for thee;
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky, are
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil'd Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song!160
Over the rising and sinking waves--over the myriad fields, and the
prairies wide;
Over the dense-pack'd cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death!

To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure, deliberate notes, spreading, filling the night.

Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist, and the swamp-perfume;
And I with my comrades there in the night.

While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed,170
As to long panoramas of visions.

I saw askant the armies;
And I saw, as in noiseless dreams, hundreds of battle-flags;
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc'd with missiles, I
saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody;
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in
And the staffs all splinter'd and broken.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men--I saw them;
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war;180
But I saw they 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.

Passing the visions, passing the night;
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades' hands;
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my
(Victorious song, death's outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding
the night,190
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again
bursting with joy,
Covering the earth, and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,)
Passing, I leave thee, lilac with heart-shaped leaves;
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring,
I cease from my song for thee;
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with
O comrade lustrous, with silver face in the night.

Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,200
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep--for
the dead I loved so well;
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands...and this for
his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Heartfelt Tribute to President Lincoln

Walt Whitman's "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" is a poem that captures the essence of grief felt by the nation after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. In this poem, Whitman pays tribute to Lincoln and his legacy, while also serving as a reflection of the nation's collective mourning. The poem is a masterpiece of poetry, one that deserves close examination and interpretation. This literary criticism and interpretation seeks to explore the themes, motifs, and symbols present in the poem, as well as the historical context that informs it.

Historical Context

The year was 1865, and the United States was in the midst of a brutal civil war. President Abraham Lincoln, a towering figure in American history, was leading the country through the conflict. However, on April 14 of that year, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer. The nation was plunged into mourning, as the president's death marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new, uncertain future.

Whitman, a resident of Washington, D.C. at the time, witnessed firsthand the aftermath of Lincoln's death. He attended the president's funeral procession and was deeply affected by the experience. In the days and weeks following the assassination, Whitman wrote several poems, including "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn," which was published in the New York Herald on April 20, 1865.

Themes and Motifs

"President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" is a poem that is rich in themes and motifs, many of which are related to death and mourning. The poem is divided into three sections, each of which deals with a different aspect of Lincoln's death and legacy.

The first section of the poem focuses on Lincoln's death and the immediate aftermath. Whitman describes the moment of Lincoln's passing in vivid, heart-wrenching detail:

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.

Here, the lilacs serve as a symbol of mourning, while the "great star" that droops in the sky represents Lincoln's death. Whitman's use of repetition ("I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn") emphasizes the depth of his grief and his belief that the nation will continue to mourn Lincoln for years to come.

The second section of the poem focuses on Lincoln's legacy and the impact that his death had on the nation. Whitman writes:

In the swamp in secluded recesses, A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song. Solitary the thrush, The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements, Sings by himself a song.

Here, the thrush represents Lincoln, who was a solitary figure in many ways. The bird's song represents Lincoln's legacy, which continues to resonate with the nation long after his death. The fact that the bird is "withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements" suggests that Lincoln's impact was felt even in the most remote areas of the country.

The third section of the poem is a prayer for Lincoln's soul. Whitman writes:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved? 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?

Here, Whitman addresses Lincoln directly, expressing his love and admiration for the fallen president. The use of rhetorical questions emphasizes the impossibility of fully expressing the depth of Whitman's grief and love for Lincoln.


In addition to the themes and motifs present in the poem, "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" is also rich in symbolism. One of the most prominent symbols in the poem is the lilac, which serves as a symbol of mourning. Whitman writes:

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.

The fact that the lilac is a perennial flower that blooms every year emphasizes the idea that the nation will continue to mourn Lincoln for years to come.

Another symbol in the poem is the bird that appears in the second section. The thrush represents Lincoln, who was a solitary figure in many ways. The bird's song represents Lincoln's legacy, which continues to resonate with the nation long after his death.


"President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" is a poem that is both a reflection of the nation's collective mourning and a tribute to Lincoln and his legacy. Whitman's use of vivid imagery, repetition, and symbolism creates a powerful and emotional tribute to the fallen president.

The poem is also notable for its use of form. "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" is written in free verse, which allows Whitman to experiment with line breaks and meter. The poem is composed of long, flowing lines that mimic the rhythms of speech, giving it a more conversational tone. This form allows for a more personal and emotional connection with the reader, emphasizing the depth of Whitman's grief and love for Lincoln.

Overall, "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" is a poem that stands as one of the greatest tributes to a fallen leader in American poetry. It captures the essence of grief and mourning, while also celebrating Lincoln's legacy and impact on the nation. Whitman's use of form, imagery, and symbolism create a moving and heartfelt tribute to a president who continues to inspire and influence the nation to this day.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

President Lincoln's Burial Hymn: An Ode to a Great Leader

Walt Whitman, one of the most celebrated poets of the 19th century, wrote a moving tribute to President Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in 1865. The poem, titled "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn," is a powerful elegy that captures the essence of Lincoln's life and legacy. In this article, we will delve into the poem's themes, structure, and language to understand why it remains a classic piece of American literature.


The poem's central theme is mourning and remembrance. Whitman mourns the loss of a great leader and expresses his grief through vivid imagery and metaphors. He compares Lincoln to a "father" and a "captain" who has "fallen cold and dead." The poem is a lament for a man who had become a symbol of hope and unity during a time of great turmoil in American history.

Another theme that runs through the poem is the idea of transcendence. Whitman suggests that Lincoln's death is not the end, but a transition to a higher state of being. He writes, "O what shall I hang on the chamber walls? / And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls, / To adorn the burial-house of him I love?" The question implies that Lincoln's legacy will live on, and that his memory will be immortalized through art and literature.


The poem is divided into three stanzas, each with a distinct tone and purpose. The first stanza sets the scene and establishes the mood of mourning. Whitman describes the funeral procession and the people who have come to pay their respects. He writes, "Mournful, yet grand, the dirge of the sea, / With clamor and countless tumultuous waves." The imagery of the sea is a metaphor for the collective grief of the nation, which is vast and overwhelming.

The second stanza is more introspective and philosophical. Whitman reflects on the meaning of Lincoln's life and death, and the impact he had on the world. He writes, "Not for delectations sweet, / Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious, / Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment." Here, Whitman suggests that Lincoln's life was not about personal comfort or material wealth, but about service to others and the greater good.

The third stanza is a call to action. Whitman urges his fellow Americans to honor Lincoln's memory by continuing his work. He writes, "O captain! My captain! Rise up and hear the bells; / Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills." The language is urgent and passionate, as if Whitman is imploring his readers to take up the mantle of leadership and carry on Lincoln's legacy.


Whitman's language in "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" is both poetic and accessible. He uses simple, direct language to convey complex emotions and ideas. The poem is full of vivid imagery and metaphors that bring the scene to life. For example, he writes, "The black earth yawns, the rains fall, / The slimy pits exhale, the martial winds make melody." The language is visceral and evocative, painting a picture of a world in mourning.

Whitman also uses repetition and alliteration to create a sense of rhythm and musicality. The phrase "O captain! My captain!" is repeated throughout the poem, becoming a refrain that echoes in the reader's mind. The alliteration in "slimy pits exhale" and "martial winds make melody" adds to the poem's musicality and emotional impact.


"President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" is a masterpiece of American poetry. It captures the grief and mourning that followed Lincoln's assassination, while also celebrating his life and legacy. Whitman's language is both poetic and accessible, making the poem accessible to readers of all ages and backgrounds. The themes of mourning and transcendence, as well as the call to action, make the poem relevant even today. It is a fitting tribute to a great leader, and a reminder of the power of poetry to capture the essence of a moment in time.

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