The Learn’d Astronomer

11 Jan 2009 /

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.

— Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

My son has an assignment to read this poem and answer some questions about what Whitman was trying to say.

The academic answer is that he was exploring the tension between romanticism and science in the late 19th century, and acknowledging sadly, based on “much applause in the lecture-room,” that the romantic worldview was dying out.

But just between you and me, he was also saying that overanalyzing things like stars and poems makes them boring . . .

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