Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Analysis of "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman

Original poem reprinted online here: "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman
Originally read: May 31, 2013
More information about the Poet: Walt Whitman





 The poem is composed of two quatrains even though it's one stanza.  There's a sense of observation and response where the speaker in the first stanza observes, and simply states what he observed, and then the response is a little more complicated.

So with the first four lines:

     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,

The anaphora of "when" sets up a build up of the scene, and character.  "When" refers to a time, place, and scene, but also informs the reader that there's an observation going on.  When I "heard," "was shown" and "heard" again. 

The observations start out with the person presenting, "heard the learn'd astronomer," then escalates to objects, "proofs, figures, charts, and diagrams" that prove analyze what's above.  So far the speaker is objective.

Then the last line of the four lines focuses on the after effects, the "applause in the lecture room."  Here the speaker is objective as well, but note how the final line of the repeating lines focuses on the applause, and not the proofs or the astronomer.  This foreshadows what the speaker is going to focus on.

     How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
     Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself
     In the mythical moist night-air, and from time to time,
     Look'd up in the perfect silence at the stars.

Going backwards, note how the speaker feels more comfortable in the "silence at the stars" and alone.  There's an implication a rivalry between silence and applause from the speaker's vantage point.

In the second to last line, note the choice of "mythical" in the poem.  Here, with this single word, casts aside the first four lines that deal with "proof" and "charts and diagrams," -- and here the speaker feels comfortable to announce himself in this situation.

Because, based on the second line of the second quatrain, the speaker was put off by the lecture -- note how the focus is here on the verbs "rising," "gliding" and "wander'd" and how the speaker is in movement rather than stationary and distant.

"unaccountable" "tired" and "sick"in the first line of the quatrain are all actions that the speaker is feeling after the lecture.  It's the applause and the atmosphere that causes him to be "tired" and "sick" -- but "unaccountable" is an interesting word choice.  Here, when the speaker states he's unaccountable, it seems that the speaker sees himself as unimportant and unexplained and finds solace in the "mythical" and the still unexplainable, "perfect silence of the stars."  A regret of absolute knowledge.

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