Whitman’s Lilacs


I still have not uncovered the essential meaning of epitaph, and perhaps I may never be able to do so. My earlier meditation on the theme invited an exploration the relationship of epitaph to return. This seems to me to be one of the directions indicated for study. Epitaph as that which marks a particular ground invites a closer look to that grounding. I could not help being drawn to Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloome’d as I reflected on the meaning of epitaph. There, too, I find a correlation of epitaph and return, when he laments, “I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.” Whitman grounds epitaph in the act of mourning, “And thought of him I love.” The fact that love is in the present tense demonstrates a mourning that abides, that stays with the poet. In my earlier reflection Paz had said that “the present is untouchable.” Love, mourning, return, epitaph all seem to abide in the moment as if the present is their destiny and destination, something sacred that transcends everything else. Whitman gives a hint to his understanding of epitaph when he says, “But mostly and now the lilacs that blooms the first, Copious I break….” Only the new, fresh blossoming lilacs deserve to become an epitaph. I cannot push this poetic vision too far for soon the lilacs with wither and perish to join the departed that they once celebrated. Whitman seems to be saying that epitaph is a fresh bloom that somehow resists the fate of the one whose life it celebrates. He writes, “Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.”  And further, “I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.” Lilacs as nature bestowing epitaph endures by returning. Epitaph seems to be grounded in transcendence. This seems to be the meaning of return. Mourning, too, is an act of transcendence, beyond the biology of grief. Mourning as a laying bare to the light of what is hidden in the sheltered soul is an epitaph not written in words, but chiseled in memory, the remembrance that makes whole what has been broken. Perhaps it is not too far to say that epitaph is the redemption of the body that has been transgressed, and for this reason the proper grounding of epitaph is the divine.

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