Walt Whitman is an American poet, and to say he is "famous" doesn't quite cut it. He's best described as an American icon, and as anti-establishment, non-conformist, and fiercely independent. No wonder he represents America, especially 19th century America.
Whitman's elegy to Abraham Lincoln, "O Captain! My Captain!," is one of the most recognizable poems in American history. If you remember The Dead Poet's Society, then Whitman's "O Me! O Life!" may come to mind. Or, you may recall Apple's iPad Air commercial that quoted the poem, with the famous line "that the powerful plays goes on, and you may contribute a verse." But, today's post will be about a lesser known Whitman poem, "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer." Here is the poem:
When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
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.
The speaker in the poem is listening to a respected "learn'd" astronomer try to explain the mysterious physics and chemistry of the universe - the stars, the galaxies, planets, moons - with "the proofs, the figures . . . ranged in columns." The astronomer had his "charts and diagrams," wanting his students "to add, divide, and measure them." Apparently impressed and amazed by the astronomer's ability to explicate the universe with mathematics, charts, and diagrams, the astronomer's audience applauded him, with one exception. Without really knowing why, the speaker became "tired and sick." The inexplicable feelings, which we can assume are a reaction to the astronomer's lecture, force the speaker to glide out of the lecture room to wander alone outside in the "mystical moist night-air." And, then, in the last line, the speaker's angst seems to be resolved, looking "up in perfect silence at the stars."
Whitman's classic romanticism shines in this poem. And, the poem gives us the contrast between learning passively and through experience. As I read the poem, especially when the speaker decides to leave the lecture room, I imagined the speaker sitting confounded as the other students applauded the lecture. I imagine the speaker was thinking, "Here I am looking at diagrams and charts, adding and dividing, to understand the stars, when right outside is a night sky full of them. Why look at charts, figures, and diagrams, when I can look up in awe at the stars?" It's as if the speaker couldn't help but go out, see the stars, and experience the universe, if you will. The speaker wants to make the astronomer's numbers, charts, and diagrams REAL, to make a PERSONAL connection to the subject matter of the lecture room.
The stars, the night skies, the planets, the moons, and the universe are full of beauty and wonder; the speaker wanted to experience this beauty, not listen to a lecture. In the world of education, and in an era where state exams require so much attention, it is easy to focus on "the proofs, the figures" and to reduce subjects to diagrams and charts. Let us not become too focused on the charts and figures. Let us not forget to allow students to experience the beauty of the subjects we teach. We all have a bit of the speaker in us, itching to go out and look up in "perfect silence at the stars," to go and experience the world, and I know we have students in our schools that are exactly like the speaker, longing for that personal connection to what they're learning. In the midst of curriculum guides, textbooks, and state exams, let's remember to make our subjects relevant to students. I've no doubt that before the learned astronomer became so learned, he was once compelled to walk in the "mystical moist night-air" and look in awe at the stars.