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Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"

Updated on September 27, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Walt Whitman


Introduction: Study in Contrasts

Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" provides a study in contrasts between science and poetry.

The speaker makes his preference known that he favors looking at the stars over studying them.

The speaker is a transcendentalist-romantic individual who is more interested in the life of the senses than the life of the mind.

Interestingly, however, this speaker demonstrates that, in certain instances, the senses can lead to a more spiritual experience than the mind.

The speaker prefers to indulge his fancy rather than pay attention to the measured distances between heavenly bodies.

Reading of Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"

Second Movement: "How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick"

So, after the speaker had listened to a portion of the lecture, he gets up and leaves the lecture hall, goes out into the refreshing night air and looks up at the stars.

The event is simple, but the speaker's dramatic portrayal of his actions enhances the act and makes it so much more interesting and meaningful than the mere event.

For example, the use of the word "unaccountable" contrasts with all the counting that was going on by the lecturer. The speaker is simply remarking that he grew "tired and sick" while listening, but he does not know why.

The speaker seems to have no reason for this reaction. He is cleverly leaving that reasoning up the reader to discern, after he paints his portrait of natural beauty in the final three lines.

The speaker then says, "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."

These lines contrast the stuffy lecture hall with the lushness of the great outdoors; they contrast the enjoyment of being alone as opposed to being surrounded by people in the stuffy lecture hall. The night air is "mystical"—the speaker is carried to a transcendental height by the simple "moist night-air."

And the best of all the observant speaker saves for the last; in contrast to the steady pace of the lecture, he leisurely "from time to time"—no hurry, no schedule, no following someone else's line of thought—gazes up into the heavens and observes the brilliance of the stars themselves, instead of merely hearing about them through charts, diagrams, and numbers.

First Movement: "When I heard the learn’d astronomer"

The first movement of Whitman's influential poem consists of four adverbial clauses beginning with "when":

1. when he listened to the lecture,
2. when the numbers were presented,
3. when "the charts and the diagrams" were shown,
4. when he heard the audience's cheer the "learn'd astronomer."

A fascinating riddle poses the question: "When the man jumped off the building, where was he?"

Possible answers: —Until he hit the ground, he was in the air—
What's wrong with that answer? That was "after" he jumped.

Then the person riddled might respond: —still standing on the top of the building—
Wrong because, that was "before" he jumped.

This riddle is instructive for language use especially use in poetry. The adverb "when" is a flabby word, causing the ambiguity of unclarity when associated with an action. Thus, when possible, one needs to consider whether the action occurred "before" or "after" the first event.

Whitman was such an astute observer of both events and language, but this poem could use one last revision changing the "when" clauses to "after" clauses because that is the accurate time frames for each of his movements.

The reader will note that is was, actually, "after" all the following that he became "tired and sick" and determined to get up and leave:

1. after he had heard the scientist
2. after he had seen the stats and numbers
3. after he had been presented the charts
4. after he had heard the other audience members applauding the astronomer

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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