When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

Walt Whitman

STEP 1: Read Walt Whitman's poem, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer."

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
By Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts, 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.

STEP 2: Notice that you have two different ways of looking at the world represented in this poem--a scientific view and a poetic view.

You should also notice that there are two distinct themes.The first theme is that charts a diagrams cannot define the power and majesty of the universe. The second theme is that a person often has to separate themselves from the crowd to experience life from a different perspective.

You should also notices the repetition of words, structure and sounds.

Repetition of Words--The first four lines of "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" all begin with the same word.

Repetition of Structure--

the proofs, the figures (line 2)
the charts and diagrams (line 3)
add, divide, and measure (line 3)
tired and sick (line 5)
rising and gliding (line 6)
Repetition of Sounds-- The poem repeats similar sounds: heard, learn'd, heard; lectured, lecture, perfect; room, soon; rising, gliding, time, time, silence. There is also alliteration in the last two lines of the poem. Can you find them?

STEP 3: Check out this children's book based on Whitman's poem. Be sure to click on link (in red) that allows you to see the paintings and original sketches.

STEP 4: Watch Steven Hawking. Hawking is one of the world's most brilliant theoretical physicist/cosmologists and author of "A Brief History of Time". He is confined to a wheelchair due to ALS. In this video, he answers a few questions. Listen to a few minutes of this video. (You do not have to watch all of it.) Hawking represents the scientific view. Whitman represents the poetic view of the universe. Which discipline better presents and captures the mystery and awe of the universe: science or poetry?

Last modified: Thursday, 14 June 2012, 4:20 PM