25 March 2012

The mastering odor of the lilac holds me

The olfactory senses are rather intriguing and baffling sometimes.  Isn't it amazing how one simple smell can trigger so many memories?  Often enough such scents waft by our noses quite unexpectedly, sometimes to our delight and sometimes to our sadness.

In his poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Walt Whitman movingly remembers a fallen comrade.  He begins, saying,
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 blossoming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
After several stanzas wondering how he shall mourn his fallen friend, Whitman says, "Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me."  The mastering odor of the lilac holds me, too, though with much more pleasant memories.

Growing up in Quincy, we had three lilac bushes planted at three corners of our house.  Every spring when we opened the windows the mastering odor of the lilac wafted through the house.  For me, the scent of the lilac always recalls the beauty of spring and arrival of my favorite season.

The scent of the lilac reminds me of more peaceful and relaxing times, of simple soccer games outside, of video games and books and Legos.  It reminds me of hours spent in the fields building forts and playing to be knights and kings.  It reminds me of lemonade and lawn chairs, thunderstorms and family (we spent hours on the front porch watching the storms roll in across the Mississippi River).  (It also makes me think of the hilarious musical, Nunsense.)  In short, the scent of the lilac reminds of childhood and happiness and simple times.

This morning as I went for a walk, I thought twice I smelled the scent of lilacs, though I could not find the bushes.  I know it seems early yet for lilacs, but this has been a strange winter and spring.  The mastering odor of the lilac always lifts my spirit and fills me with gratitude.

What memories do lilacs bring to you?


  1. Lilacs bring me back to my grandmother's house, a home I always said I'd inhabit with her when I grew up (I never did so). She lived in a 100-year-old home with 100-year-old lilacs bordering the property. They were so tall that the flowers were level with the second-floor windows (this in a house with 12-foot ceilings and a first floor 5 feet up from ground level.) When we moved to this house, my sister gave me a lilac bush as a housewarming gift and it got a place of honor right out front where I can see (and smell) them as soon as they bloom. I miss my grandmother, but lilacs always bring me back.

  2. Anonymous11:23 PM

    In my mom and dad's back yard were several white lilac bushes that grew so close together they appeared to be one great big bush. It was big enough for me to hide in as a kid, and pretend I was camping out in the woods.

    Regarding Walt Whitman's poem, I always understood Whitman was referring to Abraham Lincoln and to the national mourning that followed his assassination. He writes that "night and day journeys a coffin" bearing the fallen hero -- a reference to the funeral train that brought Lincoln's body home to Springfield.


  3. Thanks for the clarification on the poem, Elaine!