A Poem by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
......."When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" is a lyric poem with a single stanza of eight lines.
.......Walt Whitman wrote the poem in 1865. The version of the poem on this page is from the 1881-1882 edition of Leaves of Grass. Click here to access all the editions of Leaves of Grass published before his death.
.......Mere numbers, charts, and diagrams cannot sum up the mystery, power, and beauty of the universe. To begin to understand the wonder of the universe, one must view it through the lens of the unaided eye rather than the lens of the calibrated telescope in order see a glimmer of its meaning. Other ways of stating this theme are the following:
.......A person must sometimes separate himself from the crowd to experience life and the cosmos from a different perspective. He must become an individual, a nonconformist, willing to abandon the herd to roam freely in open pastures. In the last three lines of the poem, the speaker does so. When he wanders alone in the mystical moist night-air, he looks up but does not see the wonders of celestial mechanics, astrophysics, or uranometry; he sees stars.
.......Lines 1 to 4 consist of four subordinate clauses that establish the situation in which the speaker (narrator) finds himself. Lines 4 to 8 consist of a main clause followed by a subordinate clause with a compound verb (wander'd, look'd). Lines 4 to 8 present the speaker's response to the situation presented in Lines 1 to 4. The first of the four subordinate "when" clauses in the first half is relatively short. The second is longer than the first, the third longer than the second, and the fourth longer than the thirdperhaps to reflect the growing complexity of the astronomer's explanation, which makes the speaker "tired and sick." Lines 4 to 8, on the other hand, are short by comparisonthe last line being the shortest in this section of the poemperhaps to reflect the simplicity of the speaker's approach to appreciating and understanding the stars.
.......Whitman wrote the poem in free versealso called vers libre, a French term. Free verse generally has no metrical pattern or end rhyme. However, it may contain patterns of another kind, such as repetition.
Repetition of Words
For example, the first four lines of "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" all begin with the same word, constituting a figure of speech known as anaphora.
Repetition of Parallel Structure
In addition, the poem builds a syntactical pattern, parallel structure, in the following groups of words:the proofs, the figures (line 2)
the charts and diagrams (line 3)
add, divide, and measure (line 3)
tired and sick (line 5)
rising and gliding (line 6)Repetition of Sounds
Finally, the poem repeats similar sounds: heard, learn'd, heard; lectured, lecture, perfect; room,
soon; rising, gliding, time, time, silence. Notice, too, the alliterations in the last two lines: mystical
moist and silent . . . stars.
When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
By Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
When I heard the learn'd1astronomer,
1....learn'd: This word may carry a hint of sarcasm.
Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)
Alliterationthe diagrams, to add, divide
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick
silence at the starsAnaphoraWhen I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts, the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture roomAssonancerising and glidingStudy Questions and Essay Topics
1....Write a poem in free verse on a subject of your choice.
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