When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029

Romanticism and the Scientific Process

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When applied to literature, the term romantic refers, very broadly, to the stress of the imagination and the senses over reason and logic. Pre-Civil War American romanticism has more specific associations, as does the philosophy of transcendentalism, and both of these terms are discussed in the historical context section below. But the particular strand of romanticism and transcendentalism that Whitman invokes in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” can be seen in poem’s contrast between the value of the sensory imagination and the logical method of the scientific process in their approaches to the natural world.

The first quatrain concentrates on the mathematical logic of the scientific process, and the poem details the breakdown of data from the real world as it is arranged and ordered by science. Although there is a sense that the learned astronomer’s ability to arrange the information in this order is impressive, the main emphasis of Whitman’s language suggests that his approach to astronomical data is cramped within a lecture room and even distinct from the astronomical phenomena themselves. Whitman may be suggesting that the lecture makes the speaker “tired and sick” because the manipulation of figures and the sitting in the closed lecture room full of applause is not as meaningful as the contemplation “in perfect silence” of the stars. Because the final three lines are so much richer in language and vision, it seems that romantic mysticism is favored above logic and science.

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However, this does not necessarily suggest that the speaker has no interest in astronomy, or that the scientific process is worthless. Whitman, who was himself quite interested in the field of astronomy and the scientific advances of the period, also includes the hint in line 6 that the speaker is somewhat aimless in his escape from the lecture room by using the word, “wander’d.” Wandering and mysticism are therefore not necessarily Whitman’s straightforward solutions to the problems of the strict logic of the lecture room, and it is also possible that the “unaccountable” speaker may simply be unable to handle the truth and exactness of science. Nevertheless, the overriding sense of the poem seems to stress that logic and science are often unable to see and absorb the fuller sense of the world that a romantic inclination can provide.

Personalism

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Latest answer posted April 23, 2020, 7:15 pm (UTC)

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“Personalism” is the name given to Whitman’s own version of individualism, the philosophy that individuals should lead their lives as they desire, balanced with the democratic ideal of a state that governs individual actions to some degree and develops a sense of union. The precise balance between individualism and ideals of statehood is not always clear in Whitman’s poetry, however, and the poems of Leaves of Grass often question the balance between the individual and the collective that this theme requires. The main clue that “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” includes a meditation on the theme of personalism is the phrase “wander’d off by myself” in line 6, a clear reference to the solitary nature of the speaker’s observation of the night sky.

Contrasting the speaker’s lone interaction with the stars to the group of scientific observers that applaud the learned astronomer, Whitman at first seems to be stressing the importance of an individual’s unique and personal contemplation of astronomy. When he leaves the group inside the lecture room, the speaker is able to rise and glide out into a mystical appreciation of the stars that does not make him “tired and sick” or unsatisfied. It seems due to the speaker’s personal freedom that he is able, “from time to time,” to enjoy the fuller and more majestic meaning of the stars.

As in Whitman’s treatment of the theme of romanticism, however, there are also a number of subtle suggestions that such an individualistic approach is not necessarily without problems. The fact that the speaker is an “unaccountable” person, or at least unaccountably unable to remain confined in the lecture room, supports this ambiguity. The problem of his “wander[ing]” from the scientific truths of the mathematical figures in the first quatrain, as well as the fact that the speaker’s individual observation results only in “perfect silence” and not in any judgments about the stars, also suggest that individualism is not the sole solution to the poem’s problems. Mathematics appears unable to produce compelling imagery like that of the second quatrain, but it is possible that this compelling imagery is itself a distraction from the true meaning of astronomy that a group effort can discover. This is why the elements of Whitman’s theory of personalism that he is testing in this poem should be considered an ambiguous balance between the volition of the individual and the solidarity of the group.

Space

Whitman’s poem uses astronomy to convey ideas about various other themes, but the poem is also making a comment about the importance of space itself. The speaker’s sense of awe and wonderment at the stars, which is reinforced by the fact that he views them in a reverential “perfect silence” and connects them to the word “mystical,” highlights the fact that Whitman viewed astronomy as something of a new frontier for American thought. By applying advances in technology during the second half of the nineteenth century, scientists were making many discoveries about the physical nature of planets and stars, and Whitman’s poem makes reference to the excitement about space during this period of discovery.

Also, and perhaps more centrally to Whitman’s thematic goals in the poem, the speaker’s interaction with the stars suggests that space is an amazing and inspiring realm that should be explored personally and intuitively as well as scientifically. There is even the possibility that the stars have a spiritual or religious significance, since they are associated with the mystical, eternal, and endless part of that universe the Whitman connected with spirituality. If this is the case, the poem can be understood as the next step in the process of discovering the truth of the universe when science fails or becomes too self-contained to see the bigger picture.

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