This poem, ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’, can be summarized as depicting Whitman’s preference for a naturalistic view of the world over an analytical one. The poet describes feeling ill and bored during a scientific lecture on astronomy. Then, after going outside and looking up at the stars, he seems to feel better.
I will begin by examining When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer in depth. Then, I will discuss the piece’s structure and end with a note on its historical context.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer Analysis
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
The first half of the poem describes a talk on astronomy that the speaker (mostly likely Whitman himself) is attending. These four lines are arranged in the form of a list, each line detailing another aspect of the lecture. The second and third lines each contain lists describing the various mathematical tools used to discuss the stars by the “learn’d astronomer.
I believe that this repeated use of lists in the first half of the poem is meant to symbolize the sense of boredom the speaker felt. Imagine a lecture being merely a long list of facts that you cannot follow and do not understand. Trying to pay attention to the lecturer could easily become a mind-numbing exercise.
The fourth line of the poem goes on to describe not just the lecture itself, but the response of rest the audience. Apparently, the poet was the only one in the room not hanging on the astronomer’s every word.
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
The second half of When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, beginning at line five, starts with a succinct description of the speaker’s reaction to dry material of the astronomy lecture. He describes beginning to feel “tired and sick” soon after the lecture begins. There reason is “unaccountable” or unknown.
The speaker continued to feel poorly “Till rising and gliding out…” he wandered out of the lecture to be alone. It’s worth noting that the language of the poem is beginning to veer away from the drier terms used in the first half of the poem.
This use of more elegant language continues in line seven. The poet describes the outside as “the mystical moist night-air.” The beauty of this phrase offers a strong contrast to the earlier list of mathematical terms and blunt statement of facts. Pay special attention to the word “mystical” in this line. It implies a more intense reaction to nature than that offered by science, implying that the speaker has a deeper connection to the stars, despite being unable to listen to the astronomer’s whole lecture.
In the final line of the poem, the reader is asked to imagine the speaker walking through that “mystical moist night-air” and glancing up at the stars from time to time. This line, along with the rest of the second half of the poem, show that cure for the speaker’s unknown illness comes from the simple act of being out in nature and quietly marvelling at its beauty.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer consists of eight lines, and each line is part of a single, long sentence. The first four lines each start with the word “when” which makes them seem like a list of facts more than part of a poem (although repetition is of course a poetic trope). The second, third, and fourth lines list the ways astronomy is discussed by the lecturer and the audience’s reaction to that discussion.
The second half of the poem moves away from the simple to the point language used to describe the astronomer’s lecture. The poet uses more elegant, somewhat flowery, words. This shift in tone and meaning at the end of a poem, commonly referred to as “the turn” in literary analysis, is meant to emphasize the poem’s meaning. In this case, Whitman is illustrating his preference for learning about nature by being in nature.
Walt Whitman is considered to be one of the most important poets in American history. For all that though, he never achieved financial success with his writing. He worked as a journalist, teacher, and printer at various points in his life. He was largely self-taught. This rejection of higher education may have influenced this particular poem. It’s clear that Whitman had a preference for a more intuitive form of learning as opposed to the traditional, lecture based education.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer first appeared in “Leaves of Grass.” It was collections of Whitman’s work that the poet continued to refine, edits, and re-publish throughout his lifetime. It is considered to be one the most important volumes of poetry in American literature.