When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer Historical Context

Walt Whitman

Historical Context

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...

(The entire section is 749 words.)