'When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’ is one of the most memorable titles in all poetry, and it helps to remind us how early Whitman was. Born in 1819, he wrote this deeply moving work in a double aftermath: within days of both President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and the end of the American Civil War. The poem appeared in the 1865 edition of Whitman’s masterpiece collection, Leaves of Grass.
With that book, Whitman had revolutionised what American poetry could say (poets could sing about what they felt it was like to be alive as never before), how it could look on the page (long-limbed, rhapsodic and free), and how it could sound in the reading ear - orchestral, psalmic and incantatory. Many poets since, on both sides of the Atlantic, and several composers too, Vaughan Williams and Delius first among them, have found new solace for the spirit in this great voice.
Readers – and listeners - love Whitman for his extraordinary musical gifts as a poet and for his invigorating wisdom which sheds light on our lives left, right and centre as though he had been passing our house and stopped to talk to us through the window.
What better figurehead in these times than Whitman, who loved men and women, but most deeply men, can we find in the poetry of the past to keep us company now as our fought-for freedoms mean men do and will love men, women love women, and gender is at last an open garden to wander in just as we like, fearless ?