Me and Walt Whitman and Alfred Noyes

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d….”

Come down to Kew in lilac-time . . . .”

Lilac

Walt Whitman lived somewhat south of here, and his lilacs bloomed in April, the same month that Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter, and that four years afterward saw the end of war and the funeral procession of an assassinated president:

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,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces
and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices
rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around
the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs — where
amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

American lilacs, at least of the poetic variety, have carried that freight of connotation ever since. British lilacs, on the other hand, lead a more upbeat poetic life:

Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
  Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
  Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
The cherry-trees are seas of bloom and soft perfume and sweet perfume,
  The cherry-trees are seas of bloom (and oh, so near to London!)
And there they say, when dawn is high and all the world’s a blaze of sky
  The cuckoo, though he’s very shy, will sing a song for London.
The nightingale is rather rare and yet they say you’ll hear him there
  At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
The linnet and the throstle, too, and after dark the long halloo
  And golden-eyed tu-whit, tu-whoo of owls that ogle London.
For Noah hardly knew a bird of any kind that isn’t heard
  At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
And when the rose begins to pout and all the chestnut spires are out
  You’ll hear the rest without a doubt, all chorusing for London:–
Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
  Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
  Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)

The lilacs in the yard next door are blooming as intensely and fragrantly as any of Alfred Noyes’s, as are the ones in front of half the other houses in town, not to mention the ones by the Congregational Church and the Civil War Memorial. Which comes back around to Whitman again, and the funeral train heading west from Washington to Springfield.

More items of cultural metaphor taking up space in my local reality.

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