An Advocate of Wonder and the Natural World: Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’
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Much of Walt Whitman’s poetry is a challenge to decipher in regards to its meaning. His use of metaphor and hyperbole is often entangling, which is the case with his most-well known collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. His verse is quite hard to follow – since most of it is not anecdotal or narrative in nature; rather it takes the reader through Whitman’s rainbow of psychological, emotional and physical reactions to his own experiences in nature. A majority of his work is, indeed, a puzzle to understand; however, this does not apply to his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” When analyzing several key elements of this poem – its narrative, the meaning of other works by the same author, and the era in which the poem was published – it becomes obvious that Whitman was expressing his apprehension of Science, which has a potentially hindering affect on one’s imagination, their sense of wonder, their sense of the unknown, as well as their enjoyment of the natural world as they innately perceive it.
After reading “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” and weighing its narrative content, it becomes quite clear that Whitman did not favor Science tendency to thwart imagination and one’s enjoyment of the unknown:
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,
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 narrator is first drawn into the Astronomy lecture by their own curiosity – their own interest of celestial objects, of space and the physical universe as a whole as it appears in the sky. They are drawn in, essentially, by their own wonderment of the cosmos – by their own imagination of what it all exists to be. Then the astronomer expounds on the scientific aspects of Astronomy, what the stars are called, where they are exactly, how they got there, etc., therefore teaching the audience the science behind it all. At this point the narrator becomes unaccountably “sick and tired, / 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,” because they have no choice but to reject Science’s systematic explanation of what life is, of how people should see and understand nature – in this case, the stars of the night sky; the narrator combats this by leaving the lecture and appreciating the star’s natural wonder as they rest in the sky, unaccounted for, unexplained.
To further evidence the argument that, in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Whitman champions nature, imagination and wonder over Science (because the latter has a damaging affect on one’s innocent perception of the world), it is important to get a glimpse into the author’s mind through considering his other works. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, for example, celebrates the natural world as the unlearned, uninhibited human would perceive it, as well the range of naturally occurring human emotions: “It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it, / I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked, / I am mad for it to be in contact with me.” He prefers all things natural – nature itself, naturally occurring human emotions – and not things with scientific implications, which are forged intellectual invention; to him, science had the potential to destroy one’s sense of wonder and their joy of the unknown world, a message he tried to convey in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
Lastly, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” was written and published somewhere in the mid-late 1800s, a time when American society was not yet dependent on technology and groundbreaking advances in science. It is likely to suggest that the advancement of science and technology was a controversial subject of the day, as well as a rather ubiquitous one. In considering this observation, it is also likely that Whitman, as a poet and artist, took a personal responsibility to combat the potential changes in society and the potential changes in the way humans lived, which could be brought on by Science. Like others of his time, he may have been worried that Science would ultimately have a detrimental, rather than improving, effect on Humanity – on Humanity’s natural joy of the unknown, of wonder, as well as Humanity’s quality of life.
Overall, a poem is a work of art – and works of art are to be interpreted in various ways; they have several meanings. But, in reality, when considering the poem itself, the author and the era, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” should be understood as illustrating Whitman’s attack on Science. The poem demonstrates his apprehension that science, if considered and taught and accepted, could ultimately hinder human imagination, a human’s innate joy of the natural world, and that it could change everyday life for the worst. Readers, in today’s scientifically oriented, technology-dependent society, may ask themselves if, perhaps, he had a point.
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