Song of the Bleeding Throat
Fitting, how the shocking and premature death of the President, like the untimely demise that had just come to hundreds of thousands of young Americans before him, should provoke Whitman to confirm the absolute naturalness of death, its beauty and inevitability. In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” he dramatizes this process of reclaiming death from its seemingly undue wartime circumstances by establishing a dichotomy of “the knowledge of death” and “the thought of” it (464), presenting the conflict between Whitman’s old, sublimely encompassing sense that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (32) and his more concrete awareness of how much suffering the war’s deaths have caused. The clanging convergence of these two attitudes crucially undercuts the joyous “carol of death” at “When Lilacs’” climax (464), indicating the profound limits of such cathartic death-celebration.
In fact, Whitman frequently slams home the morbidity in moments calculated to subvert the poem’s sweeping elegiac tone, inflicting a kind of figurative violence on the reader in order to confront him/her with death’s inescapability. One single-stanza section renders this tension with terrifying clarity:
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the
violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing
the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its
shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin. (460)
The broad reach of Whitman’s vision of the physical America, fraught with resurrection’s promise as “every grain” emerges “from its shroud,” crashes down at the stanza’s end in a death without obvious corresponding rebirth, the image of a “corpse” that stifles and mocks the speaker’s vaulting naturalistic outlook. Thus Whitman activates the symbolic healing of the natural American world, a convenient and familiar trope in the context of a nation whose “soils” themselves must reunite, while forcing that symbolic material to share narrative space with the ugly fact of Lincoln’s body, indicating the distance between the nation’s figurative reunion and the ineradicable physical damage that reunion has required.
Whitman conveys a similarly double-edged understanding of death in the thrush’s exultant “carol of death,” or at least the version of the song recited by “the voice of [the speaker’s] spirit” (464). In terms that uncannily recall the poem’s fifth section, the song calls out to “lovely and soothing death”: “From me to thee glad serenades, / …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” (465). The “carol’s” elevated tone and enveloping scope seem, for a brief moment, to definitively “answer” the problem death poses in the wake of the war, countering misery with a saturating joy.
However, Whitman immediately complicates this relief by again turning to corpses, the physical artifacts of the war’s misery. The poem’s speaker describes the “battle-corpses” and “white skeletons” he has seen during the war, observing that “the slain soldiers… suffer’d not,” while “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” (466). Just as Lincoln’s body troubles the symbolic natural renewal through which it passes on its way to be buried, the troops’ corpses tacitly question the extent to which death can be “lovely and soothing,” and still inflict so much misery on those left living. Again Whitman’s sense of death as a cold reality (for the living) squeezes in alongside his treatment of death’s broader, more abstract significance, obliging the reader to consider Lincoln’s death as a specific physical fact before lifting the president up into the position of, in Whitman’s phrase, America’s “first great Martyr Chief” (1071).