When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

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Critical Overview

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Whitman created a sensation in the literary community from the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, but his poems were extremely controversial, and he was abused by critics throughout his career. When Drum-Taps was published in 1865, reviews in the United States tended to be mixed, although critics such as John Burroughs, in his article “Walt Whitman and His Drum-Taps,” were struck by this volume and began to recognize Whitman as a unique and powerful American poet, praising “the rugged faith and sweet solemnity we would describe in Drum-Taps.” The anonymous New York Times reviewer of November 22, 1865, on the other hand, was among the many critics who continued to find Whitman’s poetry obscene: “we find in them a poverty of thought, paraded forth with a hubbub of stray words.”

Negative reactions to Whitman’s poetry, both in the United States and abroad, continued to be problematic. In June of 1865, Whitman was fired from his government job because former Senator James Harlan discovered a copy of Leaves of Grass in Whitman’s desk and found it obscene. The early 1880s saw an increased acceptance of Whitman as a brilliant and important poet, in part because of the support of the major publisher James Osgood. But the District Attorney of Boston banned the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, and Whitman refused to omit the objectionable material. Forced to withdraw further printings with Osgood after the banning, Whitman was nevertheless able to sign a contract with the Philadelphia publishing firm, Rees, and sell many copies based on positive reviews and the notoriety from having been banned in Boston.

It was not until after Whitman’s death, however, that the barrage of negative criticism against him ceased. Then, from the 1890s onwards, Whitman began to be recognized as the quintessential American poet, a reputation he continues to enjoy. Throughout the twentieth century, critics concentrated on Whitman’s innovations in language and structure, his politics and understanding of union and democracy, and his spiritual and romantic philosophy. Today, critics are increasingly interested in the historical dimension of Whitman’s poetry as well as in the ways it engages with the theme of sexuality. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” now included in the “By The Roadside” section in Leaves of Grass, is widely anthologized and sometimes included in discussions of Whitman as a poet of science and Whitman as a poet of luminosity.

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