A symbol is anything that signifies or stands for something else. In this sense all words are symbol. Symbol may be public or conventional or private. “The cross”, “the red” etc are public or conventional symbols they signify objects of which the further significance is fixed and traditional in a particular culture. Private symbol are those whose significance the writers generate for themselves, and the readers are in difficulty in understanding them.
Whiteman’s symbols are mostly private or personal. In “when Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” we find symbol which are mostly of that natural. The poem belongs to Drum-Taps volume. The very title indicates or symbolizes all that are connected with war-the drum-call, bombs, clatter of weapons, etc. lilac is of Persian origin, and symbolize manly love. In the poem “When Lilac Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” Lilac symbolizes his love for the great leader (Lincoln) whom he loves most. Lilac also symbolizes the recurrence of the memory of Lincoln. The heart-shaped green leaves stands for the lush, unadulterated feelings that come out from the heart of man.
In the beginning of the poem “Spring” has been addressed as a deity which will bring the trinity to him. Spring symbolizes recurrence of every existence after its temporary extinction. In the context of the poem, it symbolizes the recurrence of the memory of thee great leader, Lincoln, and consequent to the recurrence, is the immortality of the great soul.
The symbol in the poem is the Western Star, Venus. It is a complex symbol. Sometimes it symbolizes Lincoln himself who, in the eyes of the poet, is very lofty as a leader, and far brighter and larger than any other leader of America up to the time of Whitman. But sometimes it symbolizes a heavenly body having mystic relationship with the terrestrial beings. Sometimes it symbolizes the recurrence of the memory of Lincoln.
The next symbol is the “hermit-thrush”’ which is shy, withdrawn, from other birds or animals, and pours out melodious song from the recesses of the swamp. The thrush is identified with the bird is the threw of the poet himself. The bird’s song tallies the voice of the poet’s spirit.
The funeral procession of Lincoln’s corpse symbolizes a spiritual journey towards understanding death. It begins in sorrow and gloom, but ends in joy and serenity of spirit, an acceptance of death as the happy ending of life.
Grass is a recurrent symbol in Whitman’s poetry. It symbolizes democracy, and also the miracle of the universe, the mystery of life and nature.
“I” in Whitman’s poetry symbolizes the whole of the humanity at large, human beings of all places and times.
Besides the above-mentioned symbols, many other symbols occur. Whitman’s symbols are unique- they are for all people of all times, and they evoke emotions and feelings essential for the understanding of the significance of his poetry.