When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer: Poem's Literary Interpretation

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Words: 1502 |

Pages: 3.5|

8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

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Words: 1502|Pages: 3.5|8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer: Poem’s Literary Interpretation
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In Walt Whitman's poem, "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer," the speaker grapples with the limitations of scientific knowledge and seeks a more profound understanding of the universe. Through an analysis of the central problem presented by the speaker, Whitman prompts readers to transcend mere scientific calculations and hard facts. He accomplishes this by evoking the power, beauty, and mystery of the cosmos through the poem's style and the speaker's personal journey of discovery.

The poem's structure, written in free verse without a rhyme scheme, mirrors the speaker's liberation from the rigid confines of the lecture room. Whitman champions solitude and non-conformity to society's norms and beliefs as essential for appreciating the universe's mysteries.

Ultimately, the poem suggests that true understanding and appreciation of the cosmos require an individual's journey beyond the confines of conventional knowledge. By breaking free from the constraints of scientific lectures and embracing the universe's mystique, the speaker finds a sense of peace and revelation. Whitman encourages readers to adopt a similar path of personal exploration to unlock the profound beauty and magnificence of the world around us.

Table of contents

  1. Figurative Language Through the Lines of the Poem
  2. Whitman's Demonstration of the Ungrounded Calm and Perfection of the Poetic Speaker
  3. Conclusion
  4. Works Cited

In the poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman writes of a speaker who is exposed to the knowledge of the stars in the sky and the Milky Way galaxies, but is restricted from fathoming a deeper understanding in those observed phenomena. Through the analysis of the central problem the speaker presents, Whitman forces readers to think beyond scientific calculations and hard facts. By emanating the power, beauty, and mystery of the universe through the style of the poem and through the speaker’s own journey in discovering the world, Whitman not only reveals the many facets of the universe that mere numbers and diagrams cannot sum up, but also criticizes the scientific perspective by offering readers a more romantic and imaginative perspective that yield a deeper appreciation. Through the speaker’s ultimate end with peace and revelation of beauty and mystique, Whitman promotes the conceptions of solitude and non-conformity to society’s fast-paced developments and beliefs.

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Figurative Language Through the Lines of the Poem

Whitman creatively designs the first four lines of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” with repetition of phrases, parallel structure, and clever sound rhymes to disclose the central problem the speaker faces. The first line of the poem repeats the title, “When I heard the learn’d astronomer,” which emphasizes what the speaker is doing in that moment. In addition, the first line includes a sound repetition with the words “heard” and “learn’d.” Because these two words are not exact rhymes, but are placed in such close proximity in the same line, they give off a sense of unease and ineptness. Similarly, lines two and three also utilize repetition of syntax and parallel structure. Whitman speaks of “the proofs” and “the figures” in line two and “the charts and diagrams” and “to add, divide, and measure” in line three. Not surprisingly, in line four, Whitman returns with the sound repetition, expanding upon the sound repetition of “heard” with “lectured” and “lecture-room.”

In a more expanded view of the first four lines of the poem, Whitman incorporates the rhetorical device of an anaphora by starting these four lines with the word, “when.” As this build-up of repetition conveys the crowded and stifling atmosphere of the lecture room that is overwhelming the speaker, readers, too, become overwhelmed by the sight and sound of these lines. By looking at the structure of the first quatrain, one can notice how each line becomes more and more dragged out, with the fourth line extending way past the other seven lines. Through the manipulation of sentence structures and repetitions, Whitman reinforces the speaker’s negative attitude and mindset toward the lecture, exposing the speaker’s feelings of anxiety and unease to the readers. Ironically, the speaker finds himself in a lecture room learning about the “charts,” “diagrams,” “proofs,” and “figures,” related to astronomy but have nothing to do with the stars and the galaxies. In fact, the learn’d astronomer has not taught the class anything about astronomy itself, but has related the mathematical manipulations to allow the class to quantify the mechanisms of nature itself. Line four is crucial in revealing the central problem the speaker faces because the structure of line four suggests that astronomy, the science that deals with the material universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere, cannot be confined by numbers and figures. In presenting this notion, the speaker also suggests that he himself cannot continue to sit through the lecture without wanting to expel himself from the dankness of the lecture room.

Shifting from the first quatrain of the poem, there appears to be a drastic change in style in lines five and six. The speaker declares that he has “[become] tired and sick” and decides to “[wander] off by [himself].” The presence of the first active verb in lines five enhances the frustration the speaker endures in the first four lines of the poem. The speaker was once in a position where he was taught “the proofs, the figures,” and “shown the charts and diagrams,” but now takes control as he boldly announces his irritability and goes forth in freely roaming the forests and night-air. Whitman manipulates line five in such a way that makes one question the reason why the speaker is deemed “unaccountable.” The word “unaccountable,” connotes something that is inexplicable and puzzling. However, in line five, the subject that is described as “unaccountable” is clear: “How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick.” The readers believe that the speaker’s growing frustration is the driving force that compels him to leave the lecture room and wander off. Readers are also burdened by the same engulfing apprehension that the speaker experiences. Whitman appears to impose on his readers the notion that even the poetic speaker himself remains perplexed at his unsettlement and discomfort.

The turning point of the poem is transparent in line six as the speaker wanders off by himself. The readers and the poetic speaker share a similar desire to search for closure and peace. The speaker frees himself from the lecture room by “rising and gliding,” giving off an illusion of flight into space. This line is significant in understanding the speaker’s own journey in discovering the outside world. Whitman intertwines the literal representation of the speaker fleeing from the lecture room with the figurative representation of the speaker freeing himself into nature’s realm. In doing so, Whitman also reveals the mysteries and beauty that charts and diagrams cannot grasp and contain. The act of leaving the lecture room also serves to criticize the scientific perspective as “charts and diagrams” confine one’s ability to think beyond facts and truths. Whitman suggests in the turn of this poem that the wonders of the universe cannot be viewed through facts that others relay, but through the lens of one’s unaided eye. In order to fully appreciate astronomy, not as a lecture of computations but as nature’s gift to mankind, one must adapt a wider and more romantic and imaginative perspective. Because proofs and figures do not alleviate the curiosity of the space and the universe, the complexities of the universe can only be understood by self-seeking discoveries as demonstrated by the speaker’s “rising and gliding out” to explore nature’s profound mysteries.

Whitman's Demonstration of the Ungrounded Calm and Perfection of the Poetic Speaker

As the speaker steps outside into the “moist night-air,” he is captivated by the “mystical” beauty of the universe and stares mesmerized the “perfect silence at the stars.” The last two lines of the poem strays from the scientific perspective and enters this new realm of romanticism that Whitman advocates. The length of the second quatrain is much shorter than the first, acknowledging the simplicity and freeness in exploration. In addition, the sound rhymes of “time to time” and “rising and gliding” flow without hesitations, reinforcing the speaker’s more tranquil and amorphous method of observation. Similarly, the last set of quatrain reveals the nature of the poem’s structure. Whitman writes “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in free verse in which there is a lack of rhymes and metric pattern. The first line of the second quatrain breaks free from the anaphora of “when I,” establishing its free flow of thought. This style also enables Whitman to endorse the notions of solitude and non-conformity to society’s advancements and beliefs. The freeness in which Whitman writes this poem ultimately enables the poetic speaker to rise and glide and wander off in appreciation of the mystical universe. The word “wander’d” in line six gives off the impression that the speaker is directionless. Whereas the learn’d astronomer uses facts and mathematical calculations to define the beauty of the universe, the speaker formulates his own interpretations and beliefs “by [himself].”

Throughout the short poem, Whitman uses figurative language in order to express his feelings, Whitman quickly becomes bored while listening to the astronomer lecture about his theories and mathematical equations. He doesn’t feel any connection towards the subject of what the astronomer is giving until he goes outside and sees the stars for himself, ‘When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick…’. Whitman uses words like ‘glide’ as a metaphor to symbolize the relief the narrator feels when leaving the lecture room.

At the very last line of the poem, the speaker is finally able to see the stars once he has obtained “perfect silence.” This also proposes the importance of independence and individualism in order to contemplate the majestic beauty of the universe. Because beauty is subjective, each person must individually search for his or her interpretation of what is beautiful in this world. The only means to comprehending nature’s beauty and magnificence is to detach from known facts, beliefs, and told experiences, and to become an individual willing to view the world with broader eyes and wider perspective. Because the poetic speaker achieves personal freedom at the end of the poem, he is able to fully experience the splendor of the universe.

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In the poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Whitman utilizes rhetorical devices like parallel structure, repetition, and sound rhymes to expose the harsh reality of being confined by facts and calculations. Through the speaker’s restlessness, he embarks on a self – journey that enables him to gain a more profound understanding and appreciation for the universe. Whitman emphasizes the power of having a romantic and imaginative perspective as the poetic speaker ultimately establishes peace and unity with the universe, gaining full view of the sky and looking in “perfect silence at the stars.”

Works Cited

  1. Baym, N. (2005). "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer". In Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  2. Browne, R. (1993). Whitman: Poems. New York: Everyman's Library.
  3. Burrows, D. (2012). "Leaves of Grass". In The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Cheung, K. K. (2008). "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." In The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  5. Erkkila, B. (1993). Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Folsom, E. (2014). Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  7. Griffin, W. (1986). "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." In The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Huggins, M. (2011). "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." In Approaches to Teaching Whitman's Leaves of Grass. New York: Modern Language Association.
  9. Reynolds, D. S. (1995). Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage.
  10. Rosenthal, M. (2016). "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." In The Cambridge Companion to American Poets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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