When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

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What is the influence of transcendentalism in Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"?

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The speaker of this poem seems to recognize the idea that there is a difference between knowledge, which is possessed by the "learn'd astronomer," and wisdom, which one can really only come to on one's own in nature: a quintessentially transcendentalist idea. The "learn'd astronomer" brings all kinds of knowledge and figures in order to impart the facts about the universe, but how much sense does it really make to learn about the stars while sitting inside "the lecture-room"? This method of education makes the speaker feel "tired and sick" because he is not really learning anything, or at least not anything of true value. To do this, the speaker says, he must "ris[e] and glid[e]" outside by himself; he learns more of what has essential truth and value by sitting "in perfect silence" and looking up at the stars. These ideas—that one will learn less in the schoolroom or even the church than one can learn in nature and solitude—are very transcendentalist.

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I think that the speaker of the poem, presumably Whitman, ends up breaking out on his own path rather than that of the "learn'd astronomer" represents a strong presence of Transcendentalism.  The Transcendental idea of forging one's own path away from the conventional notion of the good is a heavy idea in Thoreau and Emerson.  It is also something that Whitman embraces at the end of the poem.  The idea of "formal" and "informal" as seen in emotions is another element that is present.  The classroom instruction is seen as sterile and plastic.  The Transcendental idea of embracing emotions and using an emotional frame of reference with which to appropriate the world is something that is seen in the closing of the poem.  Along these lines, the use of emotions in understanding something as complex as the stars and astronomy is evident when Whitman decides to leave the formal and conforming classroom setting and find his own voice, his own sense of self.  In this, Whitman defines himself as a Transcendental persona in the poem.

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Write at least six sentences discussing the influence of Transcendentalism on Whitman's "When I Heard the learn'd Astronomer".

To begin, it is necessary to understand some of the basic tenets of the philosophy of Transcendentalism. Below are a few tenets that seem particularly relevant to Whitman's poem.

  • God or the Life Force can be found in nature
  • People possess intuition that guides their learning about the universe
  • Institutions are often obstacles to our own apprehension of Truth and Beauty
  • Nonconformity encourages self-reliance
  • The material world is ever-changing, but the spiritual world is constant
  1. The poem's speaker is dissatisfied with "the charts and diagrams" that the astronomer offers as a way to know about the stars; this reinforces the idea that an institution (i.e., schools and the teachers who teach in them) is getting between the speaker and his ability to find Truth and Beauty in the night sky.
  2. It is important to note that Whitman's speaker uses the passive voice to say "when I was shown," and "when I sitting" to emphasize that he isn't learning from the indirect source of the lecturer; only when he is "rising and gliding" does he employ the active voice as he consults the greatest teacher, Nature, when he leaves the lecture hall.
  3. The speaker utilizes his intuition—and personal volition—to leave the lecture and go outside, because he intuits that lectures, charts, and diagrams are not going to teach him what he wants to know about the universe.
  4. The speaker "wander’d off by myself" to rely on his own ability to apprehend God or the Life Force in "the mystical moist night-air."
  5. Science, a construct of the material world, is subject to change; the speaker is correct to reject charts, columns, and graphs that might later be revised as more scientific knowledge is gathered. Only the spiritual world, which the speaker communes with as he "Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars" is constant.
  6. The speaker demonstrates his nonconformity when he opts to leave the lecture hall where he hears "much applause" from others.
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Write at least six sentences discussing the influence of Transcendentalism on Whitman's "When I Heard the learn'd Astronomer".

We can, perhaps, also add the following:

1. Transcendentalism was a reaction to intellectualism in mid-19th-century America. This mode of intellectualism was heavily indebted to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment ideas from Europe, both of which elevated reason. One could read Whitman's reference to the "learn'd astronomer" as slightly derisive, for his learning about the stars has nothing to do with the stars at all, but is instead a matter of "proofs . . . figures . . . charts and diagrams."

2. The "emotional understanding of the world" which the previous educator mentions is derived from the Transcendentalist's connection to the Romantic movement. Insight mattered more than logic. The astronomer's careful scientific processes are contrasted with the narrator's wandering into "the mystical moist night-air." The lecturing is contrasted with the "perfect silence" of the night under the stars.

3. The Transcendentalists also eschewed authority, which is why Whitman's narrator spurns the astronomer's lecture and why the "applause" results in his "[becoming] tired and sick." The conclusion to draw here is that the lecturer has no more authority to tell us about the stars than we are capable of understanding them on our own by wandering off by ourselves to gaze at them. The phrase "from time to time" in the final line refers not only to the narrator's sporadic gazing but also to the ancient presence of the stars. 

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Write at least six sentences discussing the influence of Transcendentalism on Whitman's "When I Heard the learn'd Astronomer".

As with all poetic interpretations and understandings, I think that one can find different answers to the question and it's important to make sure that all poetry is understood and reinterpreted on a personal level.  With this in mind, I think that six sentences on Whitman's poem and Transcendentalism can look similar to this:

1)  The Transcendental theme of self- wisdom can be seen when the speaker leaves the classroom to understand the natural world of astronomy through a subjective focus.

2)  The Transcendental idea of individuality is evident when the speaker does not need to fully listen to the speaker, but rather finds an individual path to follow.

3)  The Transcendental belief of non- conformity is evident when the rest of the class stays and the speaker leaves the classroom setting.

4)  There is an emotional understanding of the world in Transcendentalism and this is evident in how the speaker of the poem interprets content through an emotional frame of reference.

5)  The beauty and glory of the natural world as something that is part of the Transcendental movement is also present in the poem, where wonderment is evident in the natural beholding of it.

6)  The devaluing of science, a major part of the Transcendental movement, is evident in the poem, where a major theme is that individuals do not need formal scientific processes to appreciate the beauty in the world.

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Discuss the influence of Transcendentalism on "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer."

In Walden, one of the many Transcendental concepts Thoreau expressed is the idea that God does not exist in some far away place, but lives instead all around us. "Heaven," he wrote, "is under our feet as well as over our heads." As a Transcendentalist, Thoreau believed that God manifests Himself in the natural world; therefore, nature lives as the source of spiritual truth for those who will seek it there. The poem's persona is one such person.

After listening to the astronomer analyze and "explain" the universe with his charts, diagrams, and mathematical formulas, the poem's speaker becomes "tired and sick." He leaves the stifling atmosphere of the confining lecture room and goes out into "the mystical moist night air." 

The influence of Transcendental philosophy can be seen in the contrast between the attitudes and values of the lecturer and those of the poem's speaker. The astronomer intellectualizes nature, perhaps even brilliantly. He is very intelligent, but he is not wise. He understands facts, but he misses truth. The poem's speaker, however, understands that the truth of the universe, of nature itself, can only be understood spiritually. Rejecting the astronomer's carefully reasoned "proofs," he seeks truth instead by "[looking] up in perfect silence at the stars."

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