Study Guide

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer Themes

Themes

Romanticism and the Scientific Process

When applied to literature, the term romantic refers, very broadly, to the stress of the imagination and the senses over reason and logic. Pre-Civil War American romanticism has more specific associations, as does the philosophy of transcendentalism, and both of these terms are discussed in the historical context section below. But the particular strand of romanticism and transcendentalism that Whitman invokes in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” can be seen in poem’s contrast between the value of the sensory imagination and the logical method of the scientific process in their approaches to the natural world.

The first quatrain concentrates on the mathematical logic of the scientific process, and the poem details the breakdown of data from the real world as it is arranged and ordered by science. Although there is a sense that the learned astronomer’s ability to arrange the information in this order is impressive, the main emphasis of Whitman’s language suggests that his approach to astronomical data is cramped within a lecture room and even distinct from the astronomical phenomena themselves. Whitman may be suggesting that the lecture makes the speaker “tired and sick” because the manipulation of figures and the sitting in the closed lecture room full of applause is not as meaningful as the contemplation “in perfect silence” of the stars. Because the final three lines are so much richer in language and vision, it seems that romantic mysticism is favored above logic and science.

However, this does not necessarily suggest that the speaker has no interest in astronomy, or that the scientific process is worthless. Whitman, who was himself quite interested in the field of astronomy and the scientific advances of the period, also includes the hint in line 6 that the speaker is somewhat aimless in his escape from the lecture room by using the word, “wander’d.” Wandering and mysticism are therefore not necessarily Whitman’s straightforward solutions to the problems of the strict logic of the lecture room, and it is also possible that the “unaccountable” speaker may simply be unable to handle the truth and exactness of science. Nevertheless, the overriding sense of the poem seems to stress that logic and science are often unable to see and absorb the fuller sense of the world that a romantic inclination can provide.

Personalism

“Personalism” is the name given to...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)