When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

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      “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is included in the “By the Roadside” section of Leaves of Grass in accordance with Whitman’s wishes, since this was the poem’s location when Whitman declared that all future printings should match the 1892 edition. The poem had not always been in this group, however; it was originally published in the separate Civil War collection Drum-Taps and was included in the “Drum-Taps” addendum to the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. Then, in the 1871 and 1876 editions, the poem was printed in the “Songs of Parting” section, the final group in the collection. It was not until 1881 that it was placed into the miscellaneous “By the Roadside” group, where it remained in subsequent editions.

      This shifting place of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in Whitman’s major work is important because it reveals, in a way, what kind of poem it was to the poet. Leaves of Grass is not simply Whitman’s collected poetry; it is the representation of his self and the seed of his eternal self-expression—he even considered the work a bible for the new America and numbered verses in the 1860 edition as if they were biblical passages. The wide range of themes and issues in the collection were arranged in an order that was vital to Whitman’s self-understanding. A poem’s group and previous groups can help to highlight some important aspects of its meaning and thematic context.

Drum-Taps, published in 1865, was essentially a Civil War collection, and its main themes were related to the long and bloody conflict between the northern and southern States, including the war’s implications for individuals and for the country. This became more true when the collection was incorporated into Leaves of Grass and certain poems were placed into more appropriate groups. Nevertheless, although a wide variety of ideas extended from this main theme and many poems in the final “Drum-Taps” group initially seem not to have anything to do with the Civil War, each poem does relate in some way, directly or indirectly, to union, division, war, and death.

      “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” appears to be one of the poems that is unrelated to the Civil War, but its themes of personalism and spirituality actually have much in common with the central preoccupations of the “Drum-Taps” group. The individualism and democratic ideals inherent in Whitman’s personalist philosophy are evident in this poem particularly with the phrase “wander’d off by myself.” Whitman was a firm supporter of the Union of States, an idea that he connected to the unity of the self, but some of his poems also reveal an amount of sympathy for the individualistic fervor of the South. Throughout “Drum-Taps,” the poet examines the freedom and power of the individual in relation to the unity of the whole and the will of the collective. Similarly, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” highlights the stress between the self-referential and even contained method of science, and the intuition and romantic knowledge of the individual.

      In the interplay between the individual and the collective, the stars are a consistently important image. In the “Drum-Taps” group, they are normally a vision of eternity and almost unattainable unity, as in the poem “Bivouac on a Mountain Side,” which ends: “And over all the sky—the sky! far, far out of reach, studded, breaking out, the eternal stars.” The moon is also an important image of eternity, frequently associated with death and spirituality, asked to “bathe” over the dead and called “sacred” in the “Drum-Taps” poem “Look Down Fair Moon,” and referred to...

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as “ghastly, phantom” and “Immense and silent” in the poem “Dirge for Two Veterans.” Although it is difficult to find the presence of death in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” it is certainly true that the stars represent mystical and individual spirituality in the poem.

      Nevertheless, the poem did not genuinely fit in the “Drum-Taps” group, and by 1871 Whitman had placed it in the “Songs of Parting” group, the final section of Leaves of Grass, whose most important themes are death, eternity, and the future. “Songs of Parting” is a far-reaching and extensive group of poems that are also insistently self-conscious and introspective, and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” particularly in its final image, has much in common with the idea of a combination of eternity and individualism. Although “Songs of Parting” only mentions the stars once in passing, it does describe space as the “sphere of unnumber’d spirits” in the poem “Song at Sunset,” while “As They Draw to a Close” contains the provocative line, “Through Space and Time fused in a chant, and the flowing eternal identity.”

      Thus, with its speaker’s mystical and spiritual identification with the stars, which represent a kind of limitless unity that the lecture room cannot provide, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” does have a substantial connection with the “Songs of Parting” group. As the structure of the poem emphasizes, meaning and knowledge are firmly associated with the stars, which are the location of endless and “flowing eternal identity” here and in “Songs of Parting.” After withholding any imagery of nature from the first quatrain in the lecture room, Whitman saves a vision of space for the very last word of the poem, setting the image of the stars alone by preceding them with “perfect silence” and following them by the end of the text. While the scientists are left applauding themselves in the lecture room, the speaker and the reader are left with this striking impression of endless, spiritual space.

      The visionary group of “Songs of Parting,” however, whose poems either transcend the particular issues of the day or use them (as in “Ashes of Soldiers”) to comment on eternal themes, remains slightly inappropriate for “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” Although the poem’s final image and its romantic, spiritual emphasis have much in common with the main themes of the final group, its meditation on the mathematical method of the astronomer is out of place. The questions that Whitman asks about science and his criticism of the containment of the lecture room are too earthly and specific a commentary to belong with the transcendental “Songs of Parting.”

      The poem therefore needed to find another group, one that was appropriate for its commentary on contemporary scientists as well as its spiritual, eternal vision of meaning. At first it might seem that, with his taste for broad and seemingly distinct ideas that come to be unified, Whitman might have considered any number of groups for the poem. And there are many occasions for a poem that blends scientific and spiritual themes; as Whitman suggests in his 1876 “Preface to Leaves of Grass and Two Rivulets,” “Modern Science” is an extremely important aspect of “the Spiritual” and “the Religious”:

Only, (for me, at any rate, in all my Prose and Poetry,) joyfully accepting Modern Science, and loyally following it without the slightest hesitation, there remains ever recognized still a higher flight, a higher fact, the Eternal Soul of Man, (of all Else too,) the Spiritual, the Religious—which it is to be the greatest office of Scientism, in my opinion, and of future Poetry also, to free from fables, crudities and superstitions, and launch forth in renewed Faith and Scope a hundred fold.

      Offering key insight into the coexistence of scientific methodology and spiritualism in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” this thought emphasizes that science is not necessarily discounted or dismissed when Whitman is thinking about spirituality and eternity. It also suggests that science may be an extremely important step, even a vital step, in making progress in spiritual endeavors.

      It is important to recognize, however, that this thought does not account for the ambivalence about science and the dissatisfaction with the methodology of the lecture room in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It is far from clear whether this poem actually “joyfully accept[s] Modern Science,” as Whitman claims the groups of Leaves of Grass accept it “without the slightest hesitation.” In fact, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” not only hesitates to accept science, it warns that science is actually a distraction from the vital spiritual significance to be gained from the stars. Far from assisting the ultimate goal of romantic knowledge, science appears entirely self-absorbed and unhelpful even as a link to the “higher flight” of the “Spiritual.” Instead, the poem serves to censure the shortsightedness of science and its unenlightening mathematical breakdown of the natural world.

      “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” therefore, ultimately fits best in “By the Roadside,” the miscellaneous group of Leaves of Grass that is disconnected from many of Whitman’s overarching themes and does not necessarily reinforce the value of unification predominant in the other groups. As Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett’s footnote in the 1973 Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass claims: “The group is truly a melange held together by the common bond of the poet’s experience as a roadside observer—passive, but alert and continually recording.” Like the other poems in “By the Roadside,” “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” presents a speaker who is distanced from the unity of all things, and who is admonishing and discontent in his observations about the world around him.

      With its speaker “tired and sick” of the scientists that, to Whitman, do not see the ultimate goal or value of science—a speaker who is “unaccountable” and cannot see the unity of science and spirituality—the poem rightly belongs in the “By the Roadside” group. This is not to say that the themes of the poem that resonate with the preoccupations of the “Drum-Taps” and “Songs of Parting” groups have somehow become unimportant, or that a poem’s group somehow fixes its meaning. But the context of the individual poem within Whitman’s unified work is vital to the chord that it strikes with the reader, and it is only from the wayside group of Leaves of Grass that “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” achieves its full resonance as a mystical vision that is nonetheless a very real and specific commentary on the failings of contemporary science.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.


Critical Overview