Mourning Lincoln, Mourning My Son


Yesterday I taught “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” for a colleague who is undergoing chemotherapy. As I was rereading the poem, I thought a lot about my friend, whose condition is severe, and I thought about my oldest son, who died 15 years ago today.

Justin drowned in a freak accident when a rogue current appeared in a popular swimming spot near our college and grabbed him. In Whitman’s mourning for Abraham Lincoln, I recognized many of my own thoughts and emotions from the days, weeks, and months that followed Justin’s death.

Justin died on a gorgeous spring day and I was struck, even as I thrashed around in pain, by the irony. This was a season of life, not of death! Whitman picks up on the same false note with Lincoln, who also died in April. Rich images of fertility are set against the journey of Lincoln’s coffin::

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 orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.

Like Whitman, I pulled into myself and felt like I was peering out at the world. In Whitman’s case, he sees himself as a hermit thrush, singing the “song of the bleeding throat”:

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
a shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well, dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)

In my case I didn’t sing Whitmanesque free verse, but I did bury myself in literature, including Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and some of England’s great elegies (especially Adonais and In Memoriam). Without them I would have shriveled up.

As with Whitman, however, the poetry could barely hold its own against dark depression.  The star in the following stanza is Lincoln, and the “black murk” that hides it is both his death and Whitman’s despair:

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.

And further on:

Falling upon them all [the American people] and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.

Yet even as I came to know death, I also became vividly aware of the insistence of life. I remember gazing in awe at the woods bordering our yard as the vegetation exploded. Life, I thought, will not be denied. We see a similar awe in Whitman as he takes note of the lilacs:

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.

In ritually plucking the sprig, which he imagines laying upon Lincoln’s coffin, Whitman is asserting life in the face of death. My own protest against death was my resolution that our tragedy would not blight the lives of my other two sons, who were 19 and 17 at the time. The black cloud, I declared, would not define who we were as a family.

Now when I think of Justin’s death, the pain is still there but it is muted, like an old wound when the weather changes. The memory also reminds me that I am not what I once was: my empathy for others has deepened and my soul is more resonant. I understand Whitman’s vow to “keep” or hold on to “retrievements out of the night.” From his pain and from my own arise powerful images that sustain us:

For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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