When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

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What is the tone for Walt Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"?

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The tone of this poem, for the most part, is overwhelmingly weary. The word "overwhelming," indeed, is very apt here: Whitman employs parallel structures and repetition ("When..." "When..." "When...") to create a sense of monotony and convey how little interest he really feels in what "the learn'd astronomer" has to say. The impression the poem gives is one of being confined, like something meant to be calculated: "to add, divide, and measure." The poet can only endure so much of this before he states that he "became tired and sick."

The shift in tone between the first core section of the poem and the final three lines is almost palpable. From being "tired and sick," the speaker is then "rising," "gliding," as soon as he leaves the lecture room. The reader can almost feel the relief as the speaker breaks out into the "mystical night air," the repetitive drone of the calculations in the lecture room disappearing, to be replaced by the simple joy of being "by myself," "in perfect silence." There is no doubt that to look "in perfect silence at the stars" is more rewarding, in the opinion of this poem's speaker, than to be confined to a classroom attempting to analyze "proofs."

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Tone refers to the narrator's or writer's attitude and feelings about a particular subject. Word choice is a major indicator of a piece's particular tone. This poem's tone is not consistent throughout the entire poem. There is a moment when the tone completely shifts.

The poem begins with a tone of frustration and even perhaps incredulity. The speaker is attending a lecture on stars and astronomy. He is likely expecting to be wowed by seeing stars, and he is shocked to discover that the lecture is all about math, data, graphs, and measurements. The first three lines of the poem read almost like a list. It's a bit boring, and it's clear from line 5 that the narrator is also bored and frustrated.

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

He's obviously not a mathematician, because he doesn't see any beauty in those numbers. His response is to get up and leave. He heads outside into the night where he can see actual stars. This is where the tone shift comes. The final three lines of the poem start to include descriptive adjectives. He's not just outside in the night air. He's in the "mystical moist night-air." Additionally, he doesn't trudge or stomp out there. He glides out of the building. It's a tone that tells readers that the speaker luxuriates in the beauty of experiencing nature and the stars with his own eyes. Studying the math of stars is frustratingly boring to him because he can't see the natural beauty. He would rather experience it instead of learn about it.

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When we think about the tone of a given work of literature we are referring to the attitude the writer takes about a subject or character, normally produced by word choice. When we try to work out the tone of a poem such as this one, it is important to try and establish the theme and message as this obviously helps us.

Clearly in this poem the tone of the speaker at the beginning is very frustrated as he listens to this reductionist, rational lecture that "explains" the cosmos and removes all mystery and wonder from contemplating the night sky. Words such as "add, divide and measure" perhaps express the frustration of the speaker as he listens to this lecture that everyone else is enjoying so much. His emotional reaction is clear when he says "I became tired and sick." As he moves outside, the tone moves to one of reverence and mystery as he moves into the "mystical moist night-air" and regards the stars "in perfect silence," in contrast to the lecture of the astronomer. The reverence implied indicates that any attempt to calculate the cosmos is doomed to fail, as it robs the galaxy of its mystery.

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