Lilacs in the Dooryard

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(HOST) With lilacs about to bloom, Commentator Peter Gilbert reflects on the importance of lilacs in New Englanders’ door yards, hearts and poetry.

(GILBERT) I’ve lived in a bunch of houses in New England, and every one had a lilac bush out front. Lilacs are as much a part of New England homes as clapboards and chimneys. They’ve adorned our dooryards for 250 years and made their way into our poetry as images of beauty, but also, interestingly, melancholy loss.

Lilacs are so hardy you’ll still find them in the woods beside a cellar hole where a house stood two centuries ago, causing us to think of the poignant passage of time – the people, long dead, who once made their lives there. Writing in the early 20th century, Vermont poet Daniel L. Cady begins his poem “An Old Vermont Cellar Hole” this way:

To wander near a ruined home
Upon a Springtime morning,
Informs the mind and charms the eye,
But gives the heart a warning;
For, Oh! the sense of human change
That such a scene discloses –
The roses ’round the fallen walls,
And lilacs ’round the roses.

The poem “Tide of Lilac” by Vermont poet Francis Frost is even more sentimental:

From the Kennebec to Casco,
from Lebanon to Dover,
from Champlain to New Bedford,
lilac has taken over.
On roads to Narragansett,
by Cornwall cellar holes,
the lilac spires are clustered
to plague New England souls.
Purple in clean-swept dooryards,
guarding the worn doorstones,
lilac invades the marrow
of reticent strong bones.
And careful housewives shiver,
and cautious men bite lips,
when they, with no one looking,
touch blue with their fingertips.

For Robert Frost, too, lilacs were associated with melancholy loss. In his poem “Directive”, Frost describes the remains of a house in the woods and invites his reader to weep

…for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

For Walt Whitman, lilacs were inextricably linked in memory with the day Lincoln died – April 15, 1865. A year later, Whitman wrote,

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.

Whitman continues,

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love…

Perhaps Whitman associated lilacs with Lincoln’s death so strongly because, scientists tell us, smell is the most evocative and memorable of the senses.

But for us today, lilacs are unencumbered by such melancholy associations with the days that are no more, and their fragrance and beauty simply gladden our hearts in spring.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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