Notes on Walt Whitman
individual poem explicationsWhen I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
When I heard the Learn'd AstronomerWHEN I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" dramatizes the difference between a scientific knowledge of the cosmos and a direct human experience of the stars. Whitman's persona is noticing an essential difference between intellectual knowledge of a subject and the sensory/emotive experience of it. The first way of knowing (represented by the astronomer) excludes emotion, the second (embodied in the speaker) invites it. The intellectualized experience of life marks and organizes life into proofs, figures, columns, charts, diagrams that allow the thinker to make use of them, expressed here in quantitative terms of addition, division and measurement. This kind of knowing is popular, socially acceptable, and reputations can be built on it. Yet our speaker is rendered unaccountable. Something is lost. Something cannot be counted here. And it affects the speaker somatically: he is sick and tired of it. Sneaking away, he wanders off, away from the crowd, isolated as an individual consciousness confronting the object of the astronomer's lecture. Without the mediation of the intellect, he experiences, "in the mystical moist night-air," a kind of existential peace beyond words, beholding the firmament in a "perfect silence," No mediation, no understanding is needed beyond the direct apparation through the senses of the wonder of it.
There are times when practicing the art of criticism that we feel as if we are picking apart the remains of literature as in a morbid autopsy. We may feel more like the pedantic learn'd astronomer than the Walt Whitman persona. At those times, it is prudent to remind ourselves that despite all the analysis and fancy interpretations, reading literature should always return to that fundamental experience of the text, the play of language upon us, something analogous to Whitman's direct observation of the night sky.
texts for comparison: "London" by William Blake, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" by John Keats, "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara