Discuss the influence of Transcendentalism on "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer."

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In Walden, one of the many Transcendental concepts Thoreau expressed is the idea that God does not exist in some far away place, but lives instead all around us. "Heaven," he wrote, "is under our feet as well as over our heads." As a Transcendentalist, Thoreau believed that God manifests Himself in the natural world; therefore, nature lives as the source of spiritual truth for those who will seek it there. The poem's persona is one such person.

After listening to the astronomer analyze and "explain" the universe with his charts, diagrams, and mathematical formulas, the poem's speaker becomes "tired and sick." He leaves the stifling atmosphere of the confining lecture room and goes out into "the mystical moist night air." 

The influence of Transcendental philosophy can be seen in the contrast between the attitudes and values of the lecturer and those of the poem's speaker. The astronomer intellectualizes nature, perhaps even brilliantly. He is very intelligent, but he is not wise. He understands facts, but he misses truth. The poem's speaker, however, understands that the truth of the universe, of nature itself, can only be understood spiritually. Rejecting the astronomer's carefully reasoned "proofs," he seeks truth instead by "[looking] up in perfect silence at the stars."