When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

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Historical Context

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Romanticism and Transcendentalism

European romanticism began in the late eighteenth century as a rejection of the Enlightenment-era’s preoccupation with reason and rationality. Due in large part to the influence of the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, romanticism spread to the United States in the nineteenth century and became an important influence over many mid-nineteenth-century American writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Whitman. The type of romanticism practiced by these and other writers varied widely, but it was characterized by a visionary and emotional style that stressed intuition and feeling as the primary sources of truth and meaning. From Poe’s haunting ghost stories to Whitman’s poetic vision of the self as the universe, writings with a romantic influence tended to explore the various aspects of the creative spirit.

Emerson’s philosophy, which became associated with the system of thought known as transcendentalism, was extremely influential over Whitman and other American writers. Like romanticism, transcendentalism valued the examination of nature and the exploration of the self as the path to knowledge. Although Emerson was heavily influenced by European romanticism, his philosophy differed from the European tradition in a number of ways, including its conviction that people are fundamentally good. One of the most important of these distinctions is Emerson’s concept of “self-reliance,” which refers to the necessity of individualistic faith in one’s self, including one’s unique convictions and inner beliefs.

Emerson is credited with making transcendentalism popular in the United States, although other New England philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau made influential contributions to the movement. Whitman was inconsistent in his acknowledgement of their influence over him, but Emerson’s ideas and transcendentalist theories are noticeable throughout his work. Much of Whitman’s poetry, including “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is invested in the concept of self-reliance, and he consistently explores and tests the transcendental as a source of knowledge and meaning.

The American Civil War

There had long been tension between the slave-owning South of the United States and the North, which had abolished slavery by 1804, but the issue came to a head in the volatile presidential campaign of 1860. After Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party won the election, in which the major issue was the expansion of slavery into the western territories, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, largely because it feared the Republicans would attempt to abolish slavery in the South. After failed negotiations and the further secession of the other southern states, the Civil War began in 1861, when the Confederate army attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The larger, industrial North hoped for a quick end to the conflict, but the South proved to have better generals and a greater conviction to fight, and the bloody war dragged out over five years until Confederate General Lee finally surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.

The Civil War was an extremely traumatic and devastating conflict that affected nearly all aspects of American life and had longstanding consequences. For example, although Lincoln had reassured the newly formed Confederacy that he had no intention of abolishing slavery in the South, he delivered the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves in 1862 after the Union army won a particularly horrific battle in Maryland. The war was of utmost importance to Whitman, who worked for the government in Washington, D.C. during the conflict and tended to thousands of wounded soldiers. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” originally appeared in Drum-Taps (1865), a collection largely inspired by the poet’s Civil War experiences.


The mid to late nineteenth century was an active and exciting time...

(This entire section contains 749 words.)

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for astronomy. In 1838, F. W. Bessel made the first measurement of the distance from the earth to a star, and the planet Neptune was discovered in 1846 based on a position calculated by J. C. Adams and U. J. J. Leverrier. Also, technological advances in photography and spectroscopy were making it possible for scientists to study the stars and planets more thoroughly than ever before. Instead of merely charting the paths of astronomical bodies and their distances from Earth, astronomers were beginning to find out about their physical composition. In 1858, German physicist Gustav Robert Kirchhoff discovered that every element has a unique fingerprint of spectral lines. Based on this discovery and his observation of the spectral lines revealing the presence of sodium in the sun’s atmosphere, Kirchhoff thus made the first claim that elements found on Earth are also present in space.

Literary Style

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One of Whitman’s most important stylistic devices in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is his extremely careful choice of wording, or diction. When, in lines 2 and 3, the meaning of the poem stresses the ordered and categorical process of science and mathematics, Whitman’s language is full of mathematical words such as “proofs,” “figures,” “charts,” and “measure.” Or, when he is attempting to suggest the actual and magnificent nature of the night sky, Whitman describes the speaker’s wandering with the words, “rising and gliding,” which suggest the behavior of the stars or astronomical bodies themselves. This language is not simply descriptive; it is meant to bring out the poet’s thematic goals because of the resonance of the words in the reader’s mind.

Another example of the importance of diction to the poem is Whitman’s use of the common language of everyday speech, such as the contraction “learn’d” for “learned” or “look’d” for “looked,” and the simplification of “arranged” and “until” to “ranged” and “Till,” respectively. This is a stylistic technique used to develop the individual voice of the speaker in the poem, and it relates to the poet’s desire to stress a common and personal understanding of nature. The style serves as a contrast to the precise mathematical language of the learned astronomer and his scientific lecture.


Many words and sounds are repeated in Whitman’s poem, beginning with the first line, which is a repetition of the title. This line also contains the internal slant rhyme of “heard” and “learn’d,” and line 4 again repeats the sound of “lecture” with “lectured” and “lecture-room.” “When” is the first word of each line of the first quatrain, and there is another internal repetition, “time to time,” in line 7. Finally, there are a number of instances of alliteration, or the repetition of initial sounds, such as “myself, / In the mystical moist,” and “silence at the stars.”

These devices of repetition have a number of functions in the poem. For example, the repetition of “When” or the internal repetition of “lecture” may be meant to highlight the awkward failings of the scientific approach to astronomy. Meanwhile, the rich alliteration in the final three lines may be intended to stress the musical allure of the speaker’s mystical approach to viewing the stars. In all cases, Whitman’s technique of repetition is a musical device meant to enhance the pleasure of the reading experience, and it is a major part of what draws the reader to the intricacies of the poem.


Although “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” does not have a particular meter, or sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables, it does use organizational techniques such as line length and poetic form in order to demonstrate its meaning. For example, the first four lines become increasingly longer, by about two feet, or stressed syllables each. So, at the end of the quatrain, line 4 appears particularly long and inelegant compared to the brief and internally rhyming first line. On the contrary, the last line of the poem is in iambic pentameter, a traditional meter that is considered pleasing and was frequently used by Shakespeare. This stylistic technique may be a method of underscoring Whitman’s theme of the value of interacting with nature as a categorical scientist or as an independent and creative observer.

Compare and Contrast

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1860s: The Republican Party and President Abraham Lincoln are known for their opposition to slavery, support of the Union of the States, and pro-business fiscal policies.

Today: The Republican Party and President George W. Bush are known for their social conservatism, tax cuts, and increased military spending.

1860s: Astronomical science is making major advances due to technology. For the first time, scientists are able to identify elements present in the sun’s atmosphere.

Today: Technology allows astronomers to identify the furthest planetoid in our solar system, send robotic probes to the surface of the planet Mars, and see almost as far in space as the location of the “Big Bang” that is thought to have started the universe.

1860s: Homosexuality is entirely taboo, and few, if any, public personalities such as Whitman could admit to being gay without fear of severe reprisal from the government and the public.

Today: American society is increasingly accepting of homosexuality, but homophobia continues to be a major problem. Politicians such as President George W. Bush are currently calling for a constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage.

1860s: The United States is a divided country, plagued by a bloody war between the States.

Today: Public opinion is divided on many domestic and international issues despite the patriotism following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Burroughs, John, “Walt Whitman and His Drum-Taps,” in Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Kenneth M. Price, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 123–30; originally published in Galaxy, Vol. 2, December 1, 1866, pp. 606–15.

Review of Drum-Taps, in Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Kenneth M. Price, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 118; originally published in the New York Times, November 22, 1865, p. 4.

Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass: Authoritative Texts, Prefaces, Whitman on His Art, Criticism, edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett, Norton, 1973, pp. 264, 271, 300, 320–21, 494, 501.

———, “Preface to Leaves of Grass and Two Rivulets,” in Leaves of Grass: Authoritative Texts, Prefaces, Whitman on His Art, Criticism, edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett, Norton, 1973, pp. 746–56.


Allen, Gay Wilson, The New Walt Whitman Handbook, New York University Press, 1975.

This useful reference guide to Whitman is the work of one of his most influential twentieth-century critics and biographers.

Beaver, Joseph, Walt Whitman: Poet of Science, King’s Crown Press, 1951.

This study explores a number of scientific themes that relate to “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

Gay, William, Walt Whitman: His Relation to Science and Philosophy, Firth & M’Cutcheon, 1895.

Gay provides an early analysis of Whitman’s contribution to scientific and philosophical fields.

Loving, Jerome, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, University of California Press, 1999.

Loving presents a thorough biography of Whitman.

Reynolds, David S., ed., A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Reynolds places Whitman into the political, literary, and social context of his era with a collection of interdisciplinary essays.

Thomas, M. Wynn, The Lunar Light of Whitman’s Poetry, Harvard University Press, 1997.

Thomas’s book discusses Whitman’s self-conception, his nostalgia for the past, and the changes in his poetry after the Civil War.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide