Whitman’s Ever Returning Spring

Lilac, ©V.Plut

I always think of Walt Whitman in the spring. I love to say it –

“When lilacs last at 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.”

Walt Whitman, aged 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, Fulton Street, Brooklyn, N.Y., steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer, from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, Public Domain

When it starts feeling as if the weather is turning and breaking up, making ready for warmth and green and a light breeze, I pull my Whitman volumes off my shelf and take them around — to work, to the park, and I sit with them in my chair by the window. It is a ritual I associate with the preparation for springtime.

The poets can sometimes serve as a third or even fourth eye to us, as well as an extra sense, helping us to see nature from different points of view simultaneously. They make sure that we don’t miss anything.

Both poetry and the seasons can rekindle a past sorrow or even joy.

Whitman’s ode to Lincoln has always been one of the poems that I carry at the edge of my thoughts as the scent of lilac fills the air in spring and its violet-white flowers sway up and down and back and forth in the wind. While his poem is about a particular death, it carries a universal note that we can all hear.

When my brother died at his home one spring day, the words of Whitman coalesced within me as I walked through his yard after they had taken him away. A large lilac bush in full bloom loomed about his back door, its long flowers hanging like luxury from the branch that birthed it, savoring its short-lived existence, sending me its fragrant condolences, reminding me that the tenuous nature of life sends its sweet essence only briefly.

I walked about my brother’s yard and saw that his grass was neatly trimmed. The neighbor’s had just seen him the other day mowing. In the back of his shed his lettuce was coming up in neat rows and his house had just been swept and scrubbed. His winter reading stood side by side in freshly dusted rows on his shelves, ready for summer duty under his backyard elm. He had been preparing for the change of season.

I stood before the lilac and sensed its every aspect — only yesterday he likely did the same, the beauty and scent still fresh in his mind as he lay dying in his bed. I like to think of it as our last shared moment.

The lines of Whitman’s poem took on an added association for me with my brother’s death — and when the lilac once again brings the ever-returning spring, I think of his most poetic departure.

Thank you Walt.

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