A sprig this spring

The California Lilac, or Ceanothus, is a drought-tolerant shrub that is blooming now. This sprig of lilac holds a very soft blue, almost purple, flower.


The California Lilac doesn’t look much like the lilacs most of us know, with bell-shaped flowers, and the subject of Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d.”

In the door-yard 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 door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.

This poem is not merely a nature poem. It about losing a loved one and having the spring remind you again of that loss. The poem opens:

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.

The events of our lives are attached to the seasons and the seasons trigger these memories, bringing them alive. Whitman recalls the funeral:

Here! coffin that slowly passes,	 
I give you my sprig of lilac.

And the losses of war, and it reminds me that we are marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war.

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 silence,)
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;
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.

Whitman concludes:

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 thee,
O comrade lustrous, with silver face in the night.

Read the whole poem.

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