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.
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer” is one of Walt Whitman’s most famous works, not least because it featured in an episode of the hit TV show Breaking Bad. In my mind, the poem is a yet another lyrical representation of Wordsworth’s famous aphorism, “We murder to dissect” (The Tables Turned). Just as Wordsworth calls us to close the “barren leaves” of scientific study, so Whitman urges us to appreciate the natural world for what it is.
But what is it that makes this such a powerful poem? How does Whitman reinforce the potency of his plea? Well, the answer is: contrast. The entire premise of the poem is built upon the distinction between science and the natural world. Hence, the poem begins in a lecture-hall with a “learn’d astronomer” presumably talking about constellations and planetary systems. Notice how jarring the first five lines are: there’s no constant metre, and line four goes on for so long we almost have to pause for breathe. There’s a certain irony in this first section in that the “charts and diagrams” which aim to give order to nature end up as a jumbled, jolting selection of words.
It is these “proofs” and “figures” that make Whitman “tired and sick” because they try to represent nature falsely and because they fail to clarify its many complexities. They ignore nature's wholesome beauty, and focus too much on its details. Whitman, having left, can escape this false representation of the natural world to enjoy nature’s reality, “the mystical moist night-air” and “the perfect silence of the stars”. These descriptions undeniably recall the lyrical beauty of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” or Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”.
This is where the contrast comes in. Rather like a sonnet, this poem has a volta (or turn) after the fifth line. The mood of the poem changes dramatically with Whitman’s rhyming echoes “rising and gliding out”, banishing the previous jarring tone and beckoning in a new, more elegant and graceful mood. This is suggested also by the ballerina-esque movements of "rising and gliding" - the words, like Whitman, rise and glide gracefully. These ideas are reinforced in the echoes of “m” and “st” sounds in the two words “mystical moist,” and then finally by the almost perfect iambic pentameter of the poem’s last line: “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” This fluency of rhythm, when contrasted with the previous jolting pulse, reflects Whitman’s belief in the incomparable beauty of the natural world.
There are other contrasts, too, in the ideas of noise and solitude. Whereas before he sits amongst academics in a busy lecture-hall, he later goes outside by himself to judge the magnificence of the stars for himself – he, unlike most people, finds no beauty in facts and figures. And whilst previously his ears rung with “much applause in the lecture-hall,” outside he can stand “in perfect silence.” These contrasts exemplify the peacefulness of the natural world, uncorrupted and undissected by scientists and their calculations. This is what the Romantic poets adored: the freedom, solitude and tranquility of nature, unperturbed by the cruelties of human nature. This, in essence, is what Whitman illustrates, and thus glorifies.