Walt Whitman Listened to, but did not Hear, the Learn’d Astronomer

June 28th, 2012

In my opinion, anyway. Here’s the poem, When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer (and “heard” does rhyme with “Learn’d” better than “listened to”), from Leaves of Grass.

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 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.

I don’t think an unreasonable interpretation is that the viewpoint character (probably safe to assume Whitman) doesn’t warmly embrace scientists getting quantitative about nature, and that a direct experience of nature is better. Some suggest that it’s popular among English teachers because of the digs to math and science.

To be fair to Whitman, most people do listen and applaud. Just not him. He’s the rare bird, so that saves it for me, and I do recognize not everyone’s first inclination is quantitative.

But I have to say that for me, a “Learn’d Astronomer,” the direct experience of enjoying the stars in perfect silence is merely nice, and greatly enhanced by my quantitative understanding of what they actually are. I mean, come on, they’re faint points of light in the sky in some vague, ill-defined patterns. I enjoy looking at them, but I enjoy looking at a lot of things.

For me, the science enhances everything I look at. Let me provide some evidence that Whitman and the Whitman’s of the world today, can be turned on to science with how it has enhanced the experience of stars:

Star Size comparison:

Carl Sagan on humans as “star stuff”:

Living in the age of stars:

Life cycle of stars:

And don’t forget…without astronomers essentially nothing would be known about black holes, neutron stars, white dwarfs, cool M stars invisible to the naked eye, what stars are made of, how far away they are, how big they are, how energetic they are, how long they live…essentially nothing.

When I look up in perfect silence at the stars, my experience is, in my opinion, much more profound and meaningful due to the knowledge science has provided us about what they are. They are super amazing fantastic objects!

I think we need more scientist poets… (Ellie Arroway agrees, I’m sure.)


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