When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer Analysis

Walt Whitman

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)


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.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)


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,...

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

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...

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

The Civil War was a major inspiration for the collection of poems in which “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” was originally published. Read about the history of the Civil War and research Whitman’s activities during the period. How do you think the conflict affected the poem? Which of the main themes of Drum-Taps apply to the poem? How does it express them differently or uniquely? Describe and compare other historical or contextual themes in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

What is your impression of Whitman’s feelings towards science and astronomy after reading “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”?” Research Whitman’s personal interest in the subject and read about the scientific advances of the 1860s, such as the discoveries in spectroscopy by the astronomer Gustav Robert Kirchhoff. How does this information affect your understanding of the poem? How do you think the message of the poem regarding the scientific process relates to science today? What might Whitman say to a modern-day scientist, and what might he think about twenty-first century technology and astronomy, or the fact that people have walked on the moon?

Many of Whitman’s poems have musical qualities in their tone and style. Discuss and describe the musicality of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by analyzing its tone, diction, organization, and linguistic devices. How is the poem similar to a song, and how does it differ?...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s last major philosophical volume, Conduct of Life (1860), contains many of the views that were so influential over Whitman. Stressing the importance of self-reliance, the book also reveals Emerson’s romantic aesthetic theory.

Leaves of Grass (1892), Whitman’s life work and one of the major achievements in American literature, contains many famous sections, such as “Drum-Taps,” “Memories of President Lincoln,” and “Songs of Parting.” The final poem of “Inscriptions,” “Song of Myself,” is one of Whitman’s most influential longer poems.

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Evening Star” (1827) is a compelling meditation on astronomy that relates to love and other themes. It is an important poetic vision of the night sky by an earlier American romantic writer who was an important influence on Whitman.

Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby-Dick (1851) is the story of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale. Its symbolism and romantic undercurrent are vastly different in style from Whitman’s work, yet the writers were contemporaries and explored some of the same themes.

Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), like Whitman’s Drum-Taps, deals directly with the horrors of the Civil War, but its approach is quite distinct and in many ways reveals the developments in the American literary scene during Whitman’s later years.

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