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The Beauty of Walt Whitman's When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

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The Beauty of Walt Whitman's When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

My father is an amateur astronomer. It is his passion, after he comes home from work at the office, to wait outside in the fields surrounding our house with his 10" LX200 F6.3 telescope until all hours of the morning, waiting for the perfect shot of galaxies like NGC 7479 or M16. The next evening at dinner, despite being awake for over thirty hours, he speaks non-stop about how he finally got the perfect shot after five hours of painstaking positioning, how the galaxy, the nebula, the distant moon or dying star existed, or how it was turning back into scattered atoms leaving only a purplish ring of dust to prove it was ever there. A few weeks ago, an article in the local newspaper was written about him, promoting his first lecture on astronomy which was to take place in the public library. When I spoke to my father about it over the phone afterwards, he was ecstatic, saying it had gone wonderfully, and had had the most people in attendance than any other lecture the library had ever sponsored.

So of course you can see how this poem caught my attention, since I quite often hear a learn’d astronomer over roast beef and baked potatoes. To such a piece as this it may be difficult to add without taking away (which is one of the themes, I believe), but I will try not to trivialize the simplicity that makes this poem unique. Whitman recognized the destructive component of over-analyzing the stars; this principle can be aligned with his poetry, and I hope I have dissected this poem gently enough so as not to disturb the message it carries.

We begin in a lecture hall; I picture some place formal, respectful, maybe even somewhat pretentious. There is a s...

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...thing wrong with that—it just might be better that way.

Work Cited

1. Walt Whitman, "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer," The Norton Anthology of Poetry, fourth ed. (New York: Norton and Company, 1996).

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,

5 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.

— Walt Whitman (1865)1
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