Updated: Jun 11
How Walt Whitman imbued an old flower with new meaning
Lilacs announce spring and new life
Harbingers of spring, lilacs fling their fresh fragrance to the breeze, gifting the world with scent. Their rich colors, from dark purple to lavender to white and pink and lilac, excite the eyes. Lilacs are the earth’s way of letting you know that you survived winter and now have the hope of warmth and light.
Lilacs are an old, old, species that originated in Persia and then traveled to Europe. They were brought to America in 1750 and then planted at New Jersey Governor Wentworth’s home. Other prominent men fell in love with lilacs. They were reportedly one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite flowers, and he documented his lilac-planting-methods in 1767. George Washington followed suit and moved existing lilacs on his property to his garden in 1785.
This profuse and giving plant has spread across the world, existing in cold climates where they can rest and prepare for their massive explosion of blossoms when the weather warms.
1000 varieties of lilacs exist, from bushes to lilac trees that get over 30 feet tall.
In Greek mythology, Pan, the god of the wild, chased a nymph named Syringa. She turned herself into a lilac bush to escape Pan, and in anger, he broke off the reed-like branches which made pipes. With regret, he tried kissing the broken branches, and as his air pushed over them, sounds were made. Lilacs were responsible for the creation of “Panpipes.”
Russian folklore believed that hanging lilacs above a baby’s bed would bring the child wisdom.
American folklore thought that lilacs could drive away evil and that placing them in a haunted house would displace ghosts.
Thought to be symbolic of “old love,” Victorian widows often wore lilacs as a sign of remembrance.
Lilacs can live to be 100 years old.
The blossoms are edible and can be infused in water.
So how can this common, beautiful, fragrant flower hold all the hope of spring and still be associated with death?
Walt Whitman linked lilacs to death in 1865
One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, April 15th, Abraham Lincoln died after being shot by John Wilkes Booth.
Any American — and much of the world — knows the story of the self-educated, country lawyer who became one of our nation’s most beloved presidents.
But what many Americans might not realize is how the death of Lincoln reverberated into so many areas of our collective psyche, including literature and horticulture, thanks to Walt Whitman.
Walt Whitman was a reporter, printer, writer, traveler and Civil War nurse who is considered one of America’s greatest poets. He self-published Leaves of Grass and worked on it throughout his lifetime, eventually modifying it so that there are eight different editions.
Whitman felt a great affinity with President Abraham Lincoln, and when Lincoln was assassinated in the spring of 1865, Whitman grieved.
He wrote years later in Specimen Days about learning of the President’s death:
I remember where I was stopping at the time, the season being advanced, there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms. It never fails.
Fragrance is linked to emotion.
Whitman understood the power of a fragrance to evoke memories. He knew that a smell could trigger emotions all over again, year after year.
The scent of lilacs is what he associated with his grief, and he immortalized that in his eulogical poem about the death of President Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last In Dooryard Bloom’d.
You don’t have to be an English major to appreciate the power of the scene and the scents Whitman describes.
“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.”
. . .
I"n the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings, Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green, With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love, With every leaf a miracle — and from this bush in the dooryard, With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green, A sprig with its flower I break."
. . .
Finally, Whitman describes how he wants to bear armloads of lilacs to Lincoln's coffin as a tribute.
"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 chant 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, 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.)"
While lilacs are first to bloom, their flowers are short-lived. The heady fragrance lingers sweetly at first, but then the blooms start to die, leaving a heavy, cloying smell. One of the first flowers of spring, lilacs contain a natural compound called indole that’s found in flowers — and feces. It’s that undercurrent of the “bottom note” of fragrance that suggests decay and death.
Lilacs symbolize life — and share a strange connection to death, too, thanks to Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d.”
(If you don’t know Amy Lowell’s poem “Lilacs,” inspired by Whitman, you might want to check it out, too)