When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

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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? How do you think the poem’s musicality affects its meaning and themes? How and why does Whitman use music in his other poems, such as those in the “Drum-Taps” section of Leaves of Grass?

Read other sections of Leaves of Grass that are related to the themes of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” such as “Drum-Taps,” “From Noon to Starry Night,” “Songs of Parting,” and the rest of the poems in “By the Roadside.” How does “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” compare to other poems that envision astronomical bodies, and how is it typical or distinct from Whitman’s other poems about nature? What is the typical role of the moon and the stars in the collection? How do you think the poem relates to the overriding themes of Leaves of Grass, and what does it contribute that is unique and individual?

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