When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

By Walt Whitman

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About Whitman

Walt Whitman, the second son of a house builder, began his literary journey when at the age of 12 he joined the printers trade. He largely self taught himself in higher reading, and was an avid reader of great writers such as Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, and also the Bible. He worked as a printer until a fire destroyed the printing district, so he went into teaching, and after that, he went into journalism. He founded and edited multiple newspapers; even a "free soil" paper, after he witnessed slavery firsthand. His most major accomplishment, a volume called Leaves of Grass, was published and edited multiple times throughout his life. After the outbreak of the civil war, he traveled to take care of his wounded brother. While in Washington D.C., he worked in hospitals to help other injured people, and spent all excess money on supplies for the infirm he treated. Between this and providing for his family, he had a hard enough time getting by that other writers around America and England helped provide for him. After a stroke, he stayed with his brother until another republication of Leaves of Grass got him enough money to buy a house in Camden. From this home, he worked on more editions of Leaves of Grass, and created a final book of prose, Good-bye, My Fancy. He was buried in Harleigh cemetery in 1892.

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/walt-whitman

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

By Walt Whitman


When I heard the learn'd astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and 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.


This poem is about returning to observing and enjoying the beauty of nature, not quantifying it into just figures. He disliked the attitude of all of the scholars who applauded the astronomers work, when he preferred to just look at nature. The title and other parts of the poem take a critical look at highly educated people and how they handle nature and the universe, and he disagrees with their methods. It even mentions that the breaking point for him was the applause from the other learn'd people there- when they agree with and appreciate the mathematical work of the astronomer, he just can't agree with it, and must go and see the stars, not the numbers that represent them.

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By Douglas Warila