Heard the Learn'd Astronomer When I Heard essay

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Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

"When I Heard a Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman is a lyrical poem consisting of just eight lines, one single stanza, and was first published in Leaves of Grass in 1855 (Whitman 340). The poem begins with the same line as the title of the poem. Whitman is known for repeating his title as the first line in his poetry as it is a way to give extra emphasis to the line (and title). "When I heard a learn'd astronomer" as the title and first line leaves the reader without any sort of doubt about what the narrator is doing: he is listening to someone of intelligence and importance. However, it can also be suggested that Whitman is using the clipped version of learned (i.e., 'learn'd) sarcastically (i.e., he is "learned" -- at least that is what people think).

There is also the fact in the first line that Whitman chooses to rhyme the words 'heard' and 'learn'd' in the middle of the line as opposed to doing it at the end of disparate lines. Some may argue that the use of two words rhyming in the middle of a line is a bit awkward or uncomfortable to speak, and perhaps it is, however, the technique was probably utilized by Whitman in order to accentuate the difference between the person listening and the person speak -- in the fact that they are two completely different individuals: one is just a listener and one is a learn'd man. This may also be the reason that Whitman chose to use the spelling of learned as 'learn'd' -- as he may be showing the difference in intelligence through this different spelling.

The second line, "When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me" is an interesting line as well because of how long it is in comparison with the first line. The narrator is listing all of the things that the astronomer is showing, however, he says that these proofs and figures are 'ranged' (i.e., arranged) in columns before him. Columns are vertical supports, but the long line of the poem is anything but vertical. Whitman was contrasting the word 'columns' with the length of the poem.

In the third line, "When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them," Whitman is showing us all of the mathematic effort that goes into astronomy. The line before we were told about the proofs and the figures, but now we are hit with 'charts,' diagrams,' and the words 'add,' 'divide,' and 'measure.' Whitman did this as a way of separating himself from the astronomer. The astronomer is, in a sense, speaking another language, which keeps the audience at a distance. Though the astronomer is talking about the stars and the skies, something that people see every day, the way in which the astronomer experiences the stars and the skies is completely different from the way in which normal people experience them.

"When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room" is the fourth line of the poem and here Whitman is once again contrasting his own state, his own being, with that of the astronomer. He states between commas that he is sitting while he listens to the astronomer. The astronomer, on the other hand, is not sitting, but lecturing to all the people in the lecture room -- to much applause. Whitman also emphasizes that they are in a lecture-room, which seems to go against the idea of astronomy -- to be sitting in a sterile room while talking about the stars doesn't allow one to truly contemplate them. The use of lists and the growing complexity of the sentences are emphasized by Whitman to set the reader up for the second half of the poem.

The fifth line, "How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick," states that the narrator is puzzled by why he feels ill; however, the reader has been given lists and lines that have grown in detail and complexity to give us the hint as to why the narrator is feeling six. Since it follows the line where the narrator states that he, sitting, listens to this astronomer in a lecture-room with great applause, the reader can infer that being stifled in this room while listening to all the talk of math, which means nothing to the narrator, is what is making him sick as well.…[continue]

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