Chelsea for October 27

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Though in Erkkila’s essay, “Burying President Lincoln,” she asserts that, “Although Lincoln was shot on Good Friday and died the following day, Whitman avoids the obvious Lincoln—Christ symbolism [in “Where Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”] preferring instead the local symbolism of lilac and star, which were associated in his imagination with the time of Lincoln’s death,” (229) I find it almost impossible to extract the Christ imagery and symbolism from the way Whitman wrote about Lincoln.  Erikkila continues by claiming instead a “religious suggestiveness” (229) in the poem, which is very apparent, though merits a bit more attention in considering Whitman’s overall perception of Lincoln, the man.  Throughout the greater portion of Whitman’s poetry (excepting “Drum-Taps”), he seated himself as the omnipotent savior of America though throughout his writings and reminiscences of Lincoln he is dissolved and the president is elevated.  His revere of Lincoln, though not conveyed through a string of cliché metaphor, attributes to his (and our) inability to see him as anything other than a christ in Whitman’s work.

In “Where Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman uses both a “powerful western star” (459) (ironic that a star “in the east” was used to signify Chist’s birth in Bethlehem, suggesting Lincoln as an equal to the Christian Savior) and “Lilac blooming perennial” (459) (a flower that resurrects itself, if you will), he seats Lincoln in a place that would render him a Christ-figure.  Throughout the desperate elegiac tone of the poem, Whitman produces bits of imagery that lend themselves to this comparison, such as “with every leaf a miracle” (459) in reference to the lilac.  He also suggests the mourning of the churches themselves when he discusses the journey of Lincoln’s burial processional in, “The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs” (460).  By the last section of the poem, though the speaker departs from the lilac, he knows that it will return with spring (466), much like Christ is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion.

This famous elegy to Lincoln is not however the only place in which Whitman near-literally seems to worship him.  In “Death of Abraham Lincoln,” Whitman refers to Lincoln as the nation’s “first great Martyr Chief” (1071).  The capitalization of this title suggests the importance of Lincoln’s martyrdom as if no other person who ever died for a cause could ever near the sacrifice that Lincoln made for the American people. He also describes Lincoln as having “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” as well as the “foundation and tie of all, as the future would grandly develop” (787).  Whitman even refers to the Battle of Bull Run as a “crucifixion day” (735) for Lincoln.  How’s that for obvious Christ-symbolism, Erkkila?

 Whitman seems, if I may use another heavy-handed religious term, to have desired to become Lincoln’s disciple.  Despite his limited interaction with Lincoln, a lot of what Whitman attempted to do hinged on, or at least mirrored, Lincoln’s own political and social moves.  For Whitman, Lincoln embodied the essence of democracy, the very thing that Whitman attempted throughout his life to encourage and sustain.  His love for Lincoln equated his love for the Union as he seemed often to fuse the two together.  Whitman’s elevation of both above himself easily cast Lincoln in the role of savior as it was the Union that needed the saving.

3 Responses to “Chelsea for October 27”

  1. Meg! Says:


    I completely agreed with you on Erkkila and the Christ-imagery within “Lilacs.” Lincoln’s figure as a martyr alone and the time of his death sets that image up to an Christian audience alone. I also really like the way you set up the image of the star; it’s interesting that it’s in the west here (the setting sun) as opposed to the east. Whitman is kind of a reverse wise man here, observing the death of a messiah as opposed to the birth of one.

  2. s-words Says:
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    I agree completely that Christian symbolism achieves an immediate and pervasive salience in “When Lilacs…,” though, since I don’t practice Christianity and have never had much firsthand experience with the Bible, I’m left to wonder at the nature of some of those assembled Christian tropes. The poem’s second stanza sees Whitman fly into Christian metaphor even more explicitly than the “great star” you discussed, since the speaker immediately incorporates that star into a “trinity” of which the other two members are the “lilac blooming perennial” and “thought of him I love.” I’ve never fully known the degree of separation Christian theology assumes between the members of its trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit), but I’m struck by how inseparable Whitman’s star and his “thought” of Lincoln must be. The speaker hails the “powerful western fallen star” as the obvious embodiment of the great slain Western President, but the “thought of him I love” just as directly encapsulates the President himself, in the form of a mental rather than a physical object. Does that differ significantly from the Christian trinity, which may compartmentalize its elements more rigidly? Or wait–is the Holy Spirit like the “thought of him I love” in that it constitutes the binding force between two representatives of divinity, God and Christ (or, in Whitman’s case, the two agents of revived memory, the lilac and the star)?

  3. bcbottle Says:
    Avatar of bcbottle

    I found this post very helpful since you made a lot of connections that i would never have been able to make on my own. For example, it would never have occurred to me that the Christ star rose in the east.

    I feel like these kinds of connections often pass me by and yet they add another dimension to the poetry that helps in my understanding. I appreciate you making the connections for me.

    Also I feel like Erkkila is to you as Reynolds to me. I’m glad we could share that.

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