Words of American poet have special meaning in time of mourning

Posted Sunday, May. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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sanders In a ninth-grade literature class, I was assigned a poem that didn’t make any sense to me, although I was intrigued by its title.

After the third or fourth reading of this epic piece, I could not comprehend it, which frustrated me to no end because even as a teenager I had a love for poetry and took pride in interpreting some of the most complex verses.

Still, the mesmerizing title, When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d, kept drawing me back . I’m not sure I knew what a lilac or a door-yard was, but at least I was able to guess the meanings from the lines of the poem.

The next Monday at school, English teacher Mary Venable began dissecting this three-in-one poem, and for the next week, as we went through it line by line, I not only could understand Walt Whitman’s words, but also I could feel them.

Written in 1865, When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d was an elegy, a poem of grief and love for Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated that April — the time of spring when the lilacs begin to bloom.

This lamentation was different from Whitman’s other poem about Lincoln, O Captain! My Captain! (which I quickly understood), for Lilacs was soaked with symbolism of unbearable mourning.

Invariably when I grieve — a state in which I find myself more often these days — I am reminded of Whitman’s words and images.

I thought of them after watching my father die, when I witnessed the execution of a man in the Texas death chamber and on seeing Herbert Johnson Jr. lying in his front yard after a racist had shot him only because the shooter had decided he wanted to kill a black man that day.

Like Whitman’s, and I’m sure many others’, my mourning extends beyond the people I know, whom I’ve personally touched or who have touched me. With the seemingly never-ending barrage of natural and man-made tragedies, one easily could remain in a constant state of grief.

How could one not be sorrowful on hearing the news from Sandy Hook Elementary School last December or Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Okla., last week? How do you not weep over the loss of life and property from an explosion in West or tornado-ravaged neighborhoods in Cleburne and Granbury?

Every time I see images of flag-draped coffins being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base, or severely wounded soldiers being fitted for prosthetic arms or legs, my heart breaks with grief. Unlike Whitman, my words are totally inadequate in trying to express that painful emotion.

Last week, while attending a wake for the mother of some close friends, I got the news that one of my classmates had died. Donny Calton and I had gone from first grade to 12th grade together, and he had that same English class as I under Mrs. Venable.

Donny, who had retired from the Army as a major, will be buried at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day.

His death obviously is a personal loss, but because of his military background and the place of his interment, it takes on the symbolism of a greater loss — a national loss — especially coming close to the day on which we commemorate those who have sacrificed for this country.

It’s difficult to look upon those thousands of uniform tombstones in any national cemetery, particularly Arlington, without being smothered in sorrow but feeling pride at the same time.

Whitman also felt that national sense of grief in When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d, as the nation was winding up a bloody war when he wrote it. And, of course, the commander in chief was now dead.

Whether lilacs or the words of a poet mean anything to you, the lives of our servicemen and women ought to have meaning.

On this Memorial Day, at least pause to remember them.

Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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