When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

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What is Walt Whitman's reaction to the lecture in the poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"?

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This poem published in 1865 is one that is often quoted and referred to (it is even referenced in an episode of the TV show Breaking Bad); it is also one of Whitman's shortest poems, given that he is known for very long poems, including much of the poetry contained in Leaves of Grass, the volume where this poem also appeared. This poem is one where Whitman places himself as the narrator using a first person point of view. Because the poem is free verse, that ism it does not have any formal rhyme or meter, it has a prosaic feel as if Whitman is merely relating an anecdote. 

In the poem, Whitman describes his feelings after hearing a lecture given by an astronomer. His response to the orderly and fact-based lecture is one of discomfort; he says "I became tired and sick." He then says he rose and wandered off alone, into the "mystical moist night-air, and from time to time," gazed up "in perfect silence at the stars."

This poem offers a look at Whitman's strong feelings about nature, its beauty and mystical quality; but also his distaste at the idea of nature being reduced to an orderly set of figures, charts and ideas. For Whitman, nature is both a sensual and spiritual experience, as described in many of his poems, and the educated astronomer seems to have lost touch with the more mysterious, unknowable qualities of the night sky. Whitman does not seek to understand this mystery, but is content to look at it, in "perfect silence" (i.e. not needing to speak about it), and enjoy it. He also does not see to draw attention to this enjoyment (unlike the astronomer who seeks applause); but to have a private and personal encounter with the stars.

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