What is the meaning behind "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman?
The poem falls into two sections, even though they are not indicated on the page. In the first, the narrator is inside the lecture room, listening to a well educated astronomer, a "learned" man, explain the universe in terms of mathematics, with his charts and diagrams to be added, divided, and measured. In the second part of the poem, the narrator goes outside alone. The poem is developed in the contrast between these two settings.
Inside the lecture room, there is "much applause" by the audience, but the narrator begins to feel "tired and sick." When he removes himself from the room and from the astronomer's lecture, however, the change of setting suggests a change in his feelings:
. . . I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.
The narrator has placed himself in a romantic natural setting that is beautiful and appealing with the reference to the "mystical moist night air." In this setting, he does not see the stars as objects on charts and diagrams. He views them "in perfect silence" in the heavens, their natural setting. The silence itself is an natural element of beauty that contrasts the noisy lecture room.
The poem can be interpreted as expressing a romantic view. The beauty, mystery, and grandeur of the universe cannot be grasped intellectually, only spiritually.
Whitman's tendency to assign primacy to the subjective experience is something that emerges from the poem. Whitman's meaning is to explore how personalised, the idea of the individual experience being vital to consciousness, is something that permeates all study and all aspects of being. Even when one is confronted by the supposed strict domain of science, Whitman argues that there is an intellectual process that is personalized, an approach that argues individuals do not need to be tethered to how things should be. When the speaker of the poem "wanders" or explores the world of space and astrological dimension on their own, away from the "learn'd astronomer," there is real meaning present. It is through this personalized and individualized exploration where meaning is derived. In this light, Whitman is calling on individuals to explore their passions and field of study with a sense of personalized voice to what they do. In Whitman's world, it is not nearly enough to be successful or demonstrate competency in what one does. Rather, one has to find and harness their personalized voice in this process.