Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Symbolism in Whitman



"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" are two of Whitman's most striking poems, memorable for powerful, beautiful and significant use of symbols. He is a revolutionary poet of symbolism and his poems are full of symbolism in which various types of symbols have been employed. The use of symbols enriches the texture of a poem and enables the poet to express what may otherwise be inexpressible.


From paragraph 1-4 of the whole poem of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" introduces the three principal symbols of the poem. The poet is mourning by saying-


'' 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 drooping star' he mourns, symbolizes President Lincoln who was killed by an assassination. The speaker argues he will mourn with the return of each spring, because even though nature is reborn (as the lilac symbolizes), he suffers from grief over the loss of the man whom he loves


In stanza 2, the poet says-     '' O powerful, western, fallen star!

O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!

O great star disappear'd! O the black murk that hides the star!

O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!

O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!


We also find "O powerful western fallen star" and "O great star disappeared" which are to be associated with Lincoln, and "the black mark that hides the star", and "the cloud" thus symbolizing death. This stanza describes the poet's intense grief for the dead through symbols.


In the 3rd stanza,'' 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''- the lilac bush is a symbol of life, love or affection and its heart shaped leaves symbolizes love. The elegy uses the heart shaped leaves to exemplify peoples love for Lincoln. The purple colour of the lilac, indicating the passion of crucifixion, is highly suggestive of the violence of Lincoln's death. When Whitman states, "a sprig with its flower I break ", the harm inflicted upon the sprig is parallel to the harm inflected on Lincoln. The lilac with its color represents physical life.


In stanza 4, bird symbolizes the reconciliation with death and its song is the souls voice.'' Death's outlet song of life' means that out of death will come mend life. The emotional drama in this poem is built around this symbolic framework. The continual re -occurrence of the spring season symbolizes the cycle of life and death and rebirth. The hermit thrush, through the song it sings, represents spiritual life. The thrush's song is "Death's outlet song of life "-a song celebrating death as a rebirth into the spiritual life.  


In the 6th and 7th stanza, Whitman describes the extensive funeral procession that occurs throughout the country –

"Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,

Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,

With the pomp of the inloop'd flags, with the cities draped in black,

With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil'd women, standing,

. . .

I give you my sprig of lilac.''.

The journey of Lincoln's coffin through the natural setting is symbolic of a journey through life; the passage through the mourning cities suggests a journey through death.


In stanza 8, the star again is associated with rebirth occurring in those positions every spring. It becomes symbol of sadness and woe and also acts as a deity who foresees and mourns man's tragedy. The poet also associates Lincoln with star which here becomes the symbol of luster overcomes by the night of death. 


In stanza 14, the poet sees the long black trail enveloping the nation, the universality of death. Death is described now as a 'dark mother 'and a strong deliverers '- signifying rebirth and pennyck and freedom into spirituality. It is no longer seen as only a cruel depriver of life, it is also a symbol of a deliverer into spiritual life .as the poet says "Come, lovely and soothing Death,"


At the last section ,all of the symbols the lilac ,the star and the bird twine together with the poet's chant ,to symbolize the true significance of death as deliverers into immortality. These three symbols join with the poet as he bids goodbye to Lincoln. 


In crossing Brooklyn ferry, we also find the symbols active abs solid where the ferry symbolizes continual movement, backward and forward, a universal motion in space and time. The ferry moves on from a point of land, through water, to another point of land. Land water thus form part of the symbolic patterns of the poem. The water symbolizes the soul and the land symbolizes the body and the sea shore the meeting point of the land and the sea, symbolizes the antithesis between the body and the soul; it means it is only through the body that a person can attain spirituality, or acquire spiritual quality. "The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,''-Symbolizes the spiritual bond between man and man, however distant they may be from one another. The ferry symbolizes the spatial and temporal movement. It is also associated with the groups of men and women who ride it ,who have ridden it ,and who will ride it . The coming together of these men and women symbolizes the spiritual unity of men in this world "Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!

On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home,"


The heavenly bodies, the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars have symbolic meaning . These heavenly bodies symbolize order and balance in the midst of chaos and disorder. "Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face" -  they symbolize the universal order and stability in the midst of the fleeting scenes of the hour . The city also carries important symbolic significance. In Whitman's scheme the city symbolizes companionship, friendship or the pavement in a city suggests man in movement, energetic and creative men, traveling the open endless roads.

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