The lilacs are in full bloom in Vermont. Their blue, white and purple bring joy to the eyes and sadness to the heart.
A line I think the best in American literature captures my ambivalence about lilacs. In this post, I’ll write about the line’s historical and political context, in the next, some thoughts about lilacs and cellar holes.
When lilacs last in 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.
In the dooryard 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 dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.
No poem, no single line better captures the profound sadness of the spring the Civil War ended than Walt Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’.
I hear in these first and third parts of Whitman’s mourning hymn to Abraham Lincoln a lament for the hosts who would never see their dooryards again. But in the accompaniment I sense a keening for young America, for the land of yeomanry the Civil War transformed into a nation of capital and labor.
Whitman’s ‘western fallen star’ had died the morning of April 15, 1865.
On April 21, Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train began its slow progress through the awakening spring heading first north to Philadelphia and New York City and Albany, then west across the Empire State to Cleveland, from there south by southwest to Columbus and onward west northwest to Chicago and finally south to Springfield, where he was buried on May 4.
The funeral train had traversed the heart of the Union. But ‘the past is a foreign country’. The train’s itinerary between Cleveland and Columbus lists 22 names; 16 (e.g., Cardington, Ashley, Eden, Berlin, Lewis Centre) on this familiar route are places unknown to me.
During the next seven and half hours it took to reach Columbus, it must have passed hundreds of ‘dooryard[s] fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings’.
How many of those houses held families grieving soldiers buried from Gettysburg to Vicksburg? The War had thousands of ‘western fallen stars’ which is what makes Whitman’s first verse so unforgettable. He captured them all in the one and centered grief in the most familiar of settings.
How sad that first spring of peace must have been, North and South! How poignant the Decoration Days that would follow with their late spring blooms of lilacs then peonies.
But look at the route of the funeral train, and another deeply political message appears both for post-Civil War America and for the country today.
Those who take I-95 or Amtrak along the seaboard from Boston to Washington rarely think how difficult that journey was 200 years ago. We speed over (or under) the mouths of the Connecticut, Hudson and Delaware rivers as if spanning a rivulet.
Not the least astonishing achievement of the Revolutionary generation was the creation of a north-south nation with its immense barriers to communication.
A generation later in the north and the old Northwest Territory, canals and steam engines – propelling boats and railcars – imposed a political will on a resistant landscape. That will had brought Abraham Lincoln, railroad lawyer and Whig-Republican politician, his fortune.
The funeral train rolled slowly north across tamed – if not conquered – rivers to the nation’s former capitals, Philadelphia and New York. Then to Albany it ran along the Hudson, the great pipe down which flowed the grain and produce from the heartland and whose return brought industrial products from the fall line.
At Albany, the funeral train turned west toward Buffalo on the New York Central line parallel to the Erie Canal which had first tapped the agricultural riches of the west for the cities of the northern littoral.
In Cleveland, the funeral train passed onto the tracks of the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati Rail Road which had united Ohio northeast to southwest as no river or canal could. From Columbus to Indianapolis, the rails paralleled the National Road, which similarly, had united this most important state east and west.
The National Road (US 40, I-70) was the young nation’s first great experiment in unification by internal improvements. No issue except slavery – with which it was intertwined, not surprisingly – so defined the first American republic as the fight over whether the Federal government should plan and pay for projects that made easier the transport of goods, people and ideas through and between states.
Generally, the north and old northwest wanted internal improvements; the south didn’t. The fate of the southern rebellion was determined by the improvements the north had made and the industrial development that followed.
Such was the message of the funeral train.
Lincoln’s four years in office affirmed the northern ascendency in arms, industry and education. They committed the second republic – dominated by the north as the south had the first – to unification by transcontinental railroad, by Land Grant universities and by the thousands of aftershocks from the earthquake of the War of Rebellion. (For my thoughts on reconciliation between north and south, see here; internal improvements, see here; education, see here.
The heirs of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had lost the wars – military and political – over the nation’s future. Indeed, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, ‘this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom’.
Into this new reality past dooryards alive in lilacs in the spring of 1865 the troops trudged homeward.
In American politics there are ‘no final victories’, as the Kennedy-Johnson insider Larry O’Brien titled his memoirs published during the Ford administration.
Today’s third American republic seems destined to abandon the unifications of the second – from race to education to law to internal improvements – that do not depend on coercion or flag-waving.
The heirs of Jefferson and Jackson and the southern rebellion are again ascendant. To my ears, ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d’ is a dirge for gains lost, for the seeming futility of it all.