Lilacs are flowering everywhere in the Berkshires now — in front yards, along the roadside, in a fallow field where a house once stood. Though seemingly delicate and fragile, lilacs are quite hardy and can live well into their seventh decade. Every spring, their blossoms fill the air with a potent fragrance that’s infused with longing — the mixture of “memory and desire” T. S. Eliot wrote about in the Wasteland. What is it about the sense of smell — the strongest of the human senses — that can transport us so quickly into the past? Lilac was the signature scent of an elderly aunt — a stern, accomplished pianist who brooked no nonsense —who returns to me every spring with the first whiff of syringa vulgaris. Lilac. The name itself is lovely, with those two gentle vowels nestled in the arms of the three protective consonants. The roots of the lilac are sunk deep into the heart of American poetry, with Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln the most famous. This long, glorious poem which, like so much of Whitman, contains multitudes – the planet Venus, the hermit thrush, the Civil war, mourning, death, and “ever returning spring” — to name just a few. Here are the poem’s first and final verses.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
by Walt Whitman
When lilacs last in the dooryard 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.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Passing the visions, passing the night,
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands,
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.
I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.
Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
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.