Saturday, May 16, 2009

With Every Leaf a Miracle

The lilacs in our front yard are just beginning to bloom, although most of the deep purple buds are still tightly closed. As I press my nose to the burgeoning blossoms, there is the merest tantalizing whiff of scent. The "heart-shaped leaves of rich green" are now lush and cover what were bare branches not long ago.

Last spring, I endeavored to memorize Whitman's great elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd. The 1865 version of the poem consists of twenty-one sections of several stanzas each. Over two and a half months, I managed to memorize seven sections.

It is impossible adequately to express what this poem means to me. It encompasses so much of what I love--Walt Whitman, bard and passionate lover of all; Abraham Lincoln, my great hero since earliest childhood and an ongoing subject of study; the lilac, ancient shrub of exquisite scent known to me since early boyhood; spring, when new life emerges so sensuously and extravagantly; the hermit thrush, whose ethereal song evokes an earthy spirituality; the elegy, that artistic form of grief and longing; death, its mystery and allure ever captivating.

Here is Whitman's mesmerizing ode to death at the heart of Lilacs:

Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
And for love, sweet love -- But praise! O praise and praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.

Dark mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee--I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come 

Approach, encompassing Death-- strong Deliveress!
When it is so--when you have taken them, I joyously sing
            the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee-- adornments and 
             feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread 
            sky, are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose
             voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil'd Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the treetops I float thee a song!
Over the rising and sinking waves-- over the myriad fields,
             and the prairies wide;
Over the dense-pack'd cities all, and the teeming wharves
            and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O Death!

(Photo from Google Image)


Sukie Curtis said...

Another amazing layer of Whitman I didn't know. And the one line from "When Lilacs Last..." that I do know?

" ...a shy and hidden bird
is warbling a song..."

presumably a hermit thrush.

Geoff said...

The poem is like entering another world--it is SO NOT how death is viewed in this culture. Instead of the cowled reaper, we have a Deliveress, a Dark Mother with soft feet whose nature is a loving floating ocean. That shift, from fear to love, is so profound that it leaves you a little open mouthed and stunned.

This (part of the) poem is like an anthem for a sea change in the American view of death. I hate to say it, but like everything else, it's about marketing--how you get this burned into the consciousness of humanity.

No doubt the process of human evolution itself will take care of this (what works and is true remains in the long run), but who will take Whitman's faith and run with it? Will it be you? Larry Rosenberg has been trying, but there's not enough fire there I think.

And over and against all of this is Ray Kurtzweil's belief that technology is accelerating at such a pace now that even those as ancient as we are can live forever, in some form or another, if we can just stay healthy long enough. I wonder. The research suggests that we have to sleep to be fully human. Maybe we have to die to be human too.