When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

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.

Summary of When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

  • Popularity of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”: Walt Whitman, a renowned American poet, journalist, and essayist wrote When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. It is a short narrative poem about learning against experiencing. It was first published in 1867. The poem gives an account of the speaker’s experience of listening to a tiring lecture of an astronomer. It also illustrates that the mystery of nature cannot be summed up in facts and figures. The poet explains that true knowledge can be gained when we observe the sky in solitude.
  • “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, A comment on Scientific Knowledge: The poem presents a stark comparison between scientific knowledge and cosmic reality. The speaker is listening to an astronomer, explaining facts about stars using several mathematical tools; charts, diagrams, and columns. The audience appreciates his knowledge and ways of explanation. The speaker becomes tired because of the uninteresting and monotonous lecture. Finally, he walks out of the lecture hall and looks up at the stars in perfect silence. He seems more fascinated by the beautiful stars than the proofs and evidence about stars. The poem conveys that wisdom does not rely on manmade mathematical interpretations. One must walk into the lap of nature to understand its mystery.
  • Major Themes in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”: Isolation, man and the natural world are some notable themes of this poem. The poem presents two things; society’s view of “knowledge” and the speaker’s interpretation of learning. The poet shows discontent on the mathematical logic of the scientific process presented by the astronomer in the lecture hall. Although the astronomer explains the real-world data in a catchy way, the poet considers his lecture merely a catalog of facts he is unable to understand. Therefore, he prefers walking out in nature to see the magic. On a deeper level, the poem elaborates how people can appreciate certain things in the presence of nature.

Analysis of Literary Devices in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

Literary devices are tools used by writers to convey their emotions, ideas, and themes to make texts more appealing to the reader. Walt Whitman has also employed some literary devices in this poem to bring depth in his text. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem is given below.

  1. Anaphora: It refers to the repetition of a phrase or word in two or successive verses. For example, “when I” is repeated in the opening lines of the poem to emphasize the poet’s point of view.

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.”

  1. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “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” and “When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room.”
  2. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /ea/ in “When I heard the learned astronomer” and the sound of /i/ in “Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself”.
  3. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /r/ in “When I heard the learn’d astronomer” and the sound of /s/ in “When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them”.
  4. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession. For example, the sounds of /m/ and /t/ in “In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time”.
  5. Hyperbole: Hyperbole is a device used to exaggerate any statement for the sake of emphasis. For example, “Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself”. The poet cannot actually glide out of the lecture hall.

Analysis of Poetic Devices in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are eight lines in this poem with no stanza break.
  2. Free Verse: Free verse is a type of poetry that does not contain patterns of rhyme or meter. This is a free-verse poem with no strict rhyme or meter.

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below can be used for explaining astronomical studies. These lines can also be used for children to make them understand how scientific knowledge is arranged using various tools. Also, encourage them to enjoy nature’s beauty without depending on science.

“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.”