Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer by Walt Whitman

Yesterday's poem, Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost, had me thinking of sharing something by T.S. Eliot with you, but I really didn't feel like putting the time and effort into an analysis of The Wasteland today, so instead I've gone a slightly different direction. In the middle of yesterday's poem come these lines:


Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
Those lines put me in mind of a famous short poem by Walt Whitman, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" from Leaves of Grass, which discusses Whitman's response (or his speaker's response) to having been told just these sorts of details.

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 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.


Form: Free verse - no particular form or meter, although the last line is quite intentionally in iambic pentameter.

Discussion: This poem is a lovely marriage of form and function, by which I mean that Whitman cleverly uses line lengths and numbers of stressed syllables to organize this poem. He begins with a short line that has three (or, if you like, four) stressed syllables ("when i HEARD the LEARN'D aSTRONomer" or "when I HEARD the LEARN'D aSTRONomer"), and the next few lines continue to add length and stressed syllables, an echo of how the lecturing astronomer piled more and more date and factual information onto his listeners, until you reach line four, which has a minimum of eight stressed syllables (and just look how long it is! in many type-settings, it wraps to a second line). The first four lines, all part of this single-sentence poem, set the stage for us: the speaker has been sitting listening to more and more information about stars and planets. In line five, we join him in being tired and sick of all that piling on, and in lines six through eight, we join the speaker in gliding out to a solitary space away from all those applauding listeners to stand and appreciate the night stars on our own. From the frantic piling on at the start of the poem, the lines start to quiet down again to shorter lines, until the final line settles into the most regular of English meters: iambic pentameter, stable and steady as the ticking of a clock. There's a lovely quiet feeling to the ending, partly because of the speaker's description of being alone and gazing up at the stars, and partly because of that regular iambic pentameter at the ending.

It ties to yesterday's poems in several ways, for me. Although Frost's poem was written much later, Whitman's speaker has literally turned his back on all those degrees Fahrenheit and Centigrade that Frost was demanding, and has chosen a star to gaze on, and be staid.

Does the poem represent the triumph of nature over science, or does it merely indicate a preference, or does it simply indicate that while science is all well and good, there's something to be said for appreciating the universe in silence? How important is the difference between science, as represented by astronomy, and the "mystical" night sky? Is this really a contrast between science and faith? Between the collective and the individual? Frankly, all those positions are readily defensible when reading this poem, but for today, I am choose to think of that mystical evening view and be staid.

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