It happens so very often for students when studying literature that they simply read a work, give it a surface exploration, and then move onto their next assignment without ever really being affected or influenced, not comprehending why they were ever asked to read the work in the first place. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is not one of those works. This entire piece is a testament as to why Whitman can be called a "master" without reservation. The one thing that makes this piece so great is the immense love and loss expressed by Whitman.
Love. A word and idea much abused in literature and art. Every two-bit poet that has picked up a pen has written about love's ambiguousness, its amorphality, and limitless bounds, but Whitman gives love an honest and fuller view. What allows Whitman to so successfully navigate around love is his seemless weaving of two events, occurring simultaneously, into one coherent work. Whitman is standing in a yard, looking at a lilac bush and remembering his fallen comrade and friend. At the same time, Whitman is describing the journey of his deceased friend's coffin to the graveyard. He is able to take the pain associated with memory, connect it to the scent of the Lilacs, and let that memory follow his friend on his last journey into the earth. As we follow the coffin in Whitman's dream, the reader is thrown into the spectacle, choked by the all encompassing sadness "Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land.../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..." The sense of loss is absolute and total. It is not possible to not be affected. Whitman's use of atmosphere, the universality of the despair, and his own sense of loss that joins everyone else carries the reader forward on a wave of raw loss.
And yet, Whitman does not allow this mood to overrun the poem. He keeps everything well contained and organized, directing the reader through his own sadness, without letting the sandess of the situation wash away everything. He's able to do this effectively by referring back to the lilac, his memories, and the dooryard. We learn that our narrator threw a lilac sprig onto the coffin of his deceased friend, and we learn why these lilacs mean so much to him. This realization is incredbily subtle in its power. We now understand why he hurts when he sees the lilacs bloom, and yet, we can all relate to this phenomonenon so there is not a real, jarring surprise through the revelation. It is done with sensitivity, it takes our attention from our direct, raw sadness and takes us only half a step away from it, but far enough to come back to the present and understand why our narrator feels the way he feels.
Finally, it is this tenderness for the reader, this regard for our own feelings that demands that I see Whitman for the master that he is. He takes us along a very, very painful journey, and he allows us to cry and to scream and to moan, but throughout the work he is right there with us, stroking our back, comforting us, guiding us down a path where we may once and forever let go.