Poetry 127: 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 weeks poem was suggested by Jim Champion (and is featured in the excellent TV series, Breaking Bad: Season 3, Episode 6).

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

About Richard Flanagan

I’m an Operating Department Practitioner who works for my local NHS trust in Shropshire, UK. I’m married with two young children (plus two dogs and a corn snake) and am currently undertaking an Open University degree in History. I listen to a lot of music of all genres, but especially Rock (Punk, Alternative etc.) and enjoy cooking, eating and drinking. Although I don’t consider myself to be a Buddhist I am interested in some Buddhist ideas and practices. As such, I was briefly active with Secular Buddhism UK and it was through that group that I came to be involved with the Middle Way Society.

5 thoughts on “Poetry 127: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

  1. I think it’s anti-science, and that puts me off rather. There’s more than a hint of scorn for the astronomer evidenced in the archaic poetic device “scorn’d”, “wander’d off” and “look’d up”, all clunkingly contrived to suggest “Olde-Tymes double-plus good, modern times double plus ungood” (a clumsy allusion by me to Orwell’s 1984).

    It’s possible to see beauty in the science of the universe as well as its lovely mysteries and, in seemingly deliberate ignorance of this, the poet seems to show a hint of malice, in which he/she implicitly invites the reader to share.

    So, for me, this is another good example of a clumsy parody of poetry, poorly written and in bad faith.

    1. Broadly, I’d agree with you, but I’ll let Whitman off the hook with his archaic devices as this poem dates from the 1850s.

      I have the ‘Leaves of Grass’ collection of Whitman poems, but it’s not at all an easy read. Thus I came across this poem incidentally, in the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’ rather than finding it in the book.

      At first it seemed to be a kind of ‘unweaving the rainbow’ kind of complaint about science (look up Keats & unweaving the rainbow, also the Richard Dawkins book of the same name) but then it also made me think how many ‘learned astronomers’ don’t really do much to help the situation… the muddle of ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

      And an autobiographical note: to some extent I’m a ‘learned astronomer’ (well I’ve got a physics PhD and I’ve been teaching school physics for 12 years). The first time I properly got outside by myself and looked up at the stars was in my early teens. At school, in a science lesson, we’d made ‘planispheres’ from a photocopy onto yellow card – the sort of thing that perhaps is now obsolete due to things like ‘Google sky map’ on smartphones. I took the planisphere out for many winter nights and it correctly predicted where the various constellations were in the sky – we lived on the edge of a town, so the night sky was helpfully dark in one direction. The fact that this thing was so simple yet ‘clever’ had a really big impact on me. And this was tied in with the solitude, the silence, and the mind-boggling knowledge from science (the distances to the stars, the age of the starlight, and so on). Quite a mix.

  2. For me this just conveys a moment of Whitman’s experience: the sort of moment we all have, I think. Your left frontal cortex has been working overtime, and you just need a bigger experience, to reconnect with your body and the wider energies it offers. There is conceptual analysis of the stars and then there’s experience of looking at the stars, which is not quite the same thing.

  3. Hi,

    I can see why this poem could be interpreted as ‘anti-science’, there are many people who hold the view that the scientific analysis of something reduces it’s wonder and beauty. I think that the opposite is true. I once saw Sir David Attenborough comment on this, and, to paraphrase, his point was that if one finds a flower beautiful to look at and to smell then surely scientific knowledge will add to this experience. Knowing how a flower interacts with pollinating insects, how it protects itself form being eaten or the workings of it’s many individual cells does not render the flower less beautiful to look at, or less wonderful.

    However, I’m not sure that this poem has to be taken as being anti-science. It may just as well be a comment on the way that science is presented, which can often be exclusive, impenetrable or even plain dull. Perhaps, if the astronomer presented his lecture in a more engaging way, the protagonist might have felt more inclined to stay to the end, whereby he could then gaze at the night sky with even more wonder.


    1. Hi Rich

      You make fair points. If our pal Ezra was bored out of his skull by the scientist’s presentation lots of others weren’t, they applauded enthusiastically. Not many lecturers get such accolades in my experience.

      Perhaps a question of sour grapes. Listen to a lecture, feel bored, see others enjoying it, feel piqued, go home and write a poem dissing the lecturer and his audience, wait for the applause, feel vindicated.

      Human nature, I’ve done it myself. Childish? Yes. Art in bad faith? Probably.

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