I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" is a lyric poem with a single stanza of
Whitman wrote the poem in 1865. The version of the poem on this page is
from the 1881-1882 edition of Leaves of Grass. Click
here to access all the editions of Leaves of Grass published
before his death.
numbers, charts, and diagrams cannot sum up the mystery, power, and beauty
of the universe. To begin to understand the wonder of the universe, one
must view it through the lens of the unaided eye rather than the lens of
the calibrated telescope in order see a glimmer of its meaning. Other ways
of stating this theme are the following:
A romanticthat is, poetic or
imaginativeperspective can yield a deeper appreciation of a subject than
a scientific perspective can.
Cold, hard facts can obscure
deep meanings of an observed phenomenon.
calculation can quantify and measure the components and makeup of beautiful
objects but cannot fathom their allure; only romantic musing can do that.
Astronomy can analyze the electromagnetic
radiation of a moonbeam; poetry can analyze the dreamy effect of a moonbeam
on the human heart.
Science is invaluable as a tool
to help us understand the complexities of the universe. But we must guard
against allowing it to indurate us to the wondrous beauty of nature.
person must sometimes separate himself from the crowd to experience life
and the cosmos from a different perspective. He must become an individual,
a nonconformist, willing to abandon the herd to roam freely in open pastures.
In the last three lines of the poem, the speaker does so. When he wanders
alone in the mystical moist night-air, he looks up but does not
see the wonders of celestial mechanics, astrophysics, or uranometry; he
1 to 4 consist of four subordinate clauses that establish the situation
in which the speaker (narrator) finds himself. Lines 4 to 8 consist of
a main clause followed by a subordinate clause with a compound verb (wander'd,
look'd). Lines 4 to 8 present the speaker's response to the situation
presented in Lines 1 to 4. The first of the four subordinate "when" clauses
in the first half is relatively short. The second is longer than the first,
the third longer than the second, and the fourth longer than the thirdperhaps
to reflect the growing complexity of the astronomer's explanation, which
makes the speaker "tired and sick." Lines 4 to 8, on the other hand, are
short by comparisonthe last line being the shortest in this section of
the poemperhaps to reflect the simplicity of the speaker's approach to
appreciating and understanding the stars.
wrote the poem in
free versealso called
libre, a French term. Free verse generally has no metrical pattern
or end rhyme. However, it may contain patterns of another kind, such as
Repetition of Words
For example, the first four
lines of "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" all begin with the same
word, constituting a figure of speech known as anaphora.
Repetition of Parallel
In addition, the poem builds
a syntactical pattern, parallel structure, in the following groups of words:
the proofs, the
figures (line 2)
the charts and diagrams
add, divide, and measure
tired and sick (line 5)
rising and gliding (line
Repetition of Sounds
Finally, the poem repeats
similar sounds: heard, learn'd,
silence. Notice, too, the alliterations
in the last two lines: mystical moist
and silent . . . stars.
I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer By Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn'd1
When the proofs, the figures,
were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts,
the 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 moist2
night-air, and from time to time,
up in perfect4 silence5
at the stars.
This word may carry a hint of sarcasm.
moist: This phrase may be intended to contrast with the coldly factual
dryness of the lecture.
Like learn'd in the first line and wander'd in sixth line,
this word has an apostrophe in place of the e. Whitman does not
use an apostrophe, however, in place of the e in ranged (line
2) and lectured (line 4).
One may fairly ask whether this modifier helps the poem. After all, silence
is silence. There is no perfect or imperfect silence; there is only silence,
the absence of sound. However, speakers and writers of English often use
perfect in this waysometimes for euphony, sometimes for emphasis.
As the adage suggests, silence speaks louder than words (of the lecturer).
are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures
of speech, click here.)
to add, divide
unaccountable I became
tired and sick
at the stars
I heard the learn'd astronomer,
the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
I was shown the charts, the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure
I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause
in the lecture room
rising and gliding
Questions and Essay Topics
a poem in free verse on a subject of your choice.
discipline better presents and captures the mystery and awe of the universe:
science or poetry.
was Walt Whitman's attitude toward science?
an essay that elaborates on the secondary theme.
does the speaker use gliding instead of walking in line 6?
For example, is it a poetic word intended to contrast with the coldly objective
words of science?