(Poem #54) When I heard the Learn'd 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 the 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.
I like this poem. This does not, however, imply that I agree with any of the sentiments expressed therein <g>. Whitman presents the ages-old argument that science, in its relentless probing of nature, has somehow contrived to rob it of its beauty, its mystery. Of course, it has done no such thing; there is a beauty in the proofs and equations that gladly coexists with, and complements the more 'poetic', sensory side of things. Returning to the poem, note the wonderful quality of the verse itself. There is a common misconception that 'free' verse implies a total disregard of form; this is, of course, far from the truth. I urge you to read this poem aloud, the better to appreciate the way in which Whitman has echoed his reaction to the lecture in the long, somewhat droning lines that make no attempt to mirror the natural rhythms of speech, and the instant easing of strain when he leaves, allowing 'poetry' to reassert itself. And for Thomas's view on the matter [curiously enough, written after mine; it seems that great minds *do* think alike <g>]: <comment> Much as I hate to do this to Martin... There are some poems which I don't mind too much, some which I tolerate, some which I positively dislike, and some which I cannot stand. Today's poem, I'm afraid to say, is one of the latter. Not that I have anything against Whitman, mind you. I like most of his poetry a great deal. But even great poets have their off days, I suppose... The thing that gets my goat about today's poem is the basic conceit - that Science, by measuring and analysing the natural world, somehow detracts from its innate beauty. I guess it comes down to a personal point of view (though I for one am against this entire 'two cultures' divide - I don't see why the two world-views should collide at all); nevertheless, I take issue with all those poets (and yes, scientists) who propagate it. I fail to see how understanding Nature gets in the way of appreciating it; indeed, to me, there is something wonderfully poetic about the notion that there are millions of stars in millions of galaxies, further than the eye can see, each with their own solar systems and cometary halos and asteroid belts and ringed planets and red spots and blue planets... Any poet who thinks that science is an impersonal, mechanical monster, committed to destroying beauty and truth and the joy of individuality, reducing the Universe to facts and figures, charts and numbers, doesn't know the first thing about science. Any scientist who thinks that poets are woolly-headed romantics, living in a world of their own, indulging in utterly impractical flights of fancy, building castles in the air without knowing or caring about the basics of structural architecture, doesn't know the first thing about poetry. There, that's my quota of invective for the day. thomas. </comment> Biographical Note: b. May 31, 1819, West Hills, Long Island, N.Y., U.S. d. March 26, 1892, Camden, N.J. in full WALTER WHITMAN, American poet, journalist, and essayist whose verse collection Leaves of Grass is a landmark in the history of American literature. Whitman had spent a great deal of his 36 years walking and observing in New York City and Long Island. He had visited the theatre frequently and seen many plays of William Shakespeare, and he had developed a strong love of music, especially opera. During these years he had also read extensively at home and in the New York libraries, and he began experimenting with a new style of poetry. While a schoolteacher, printer, and journalist he had published sentimental stories and poems in newspapers and popular magazines, but they showed almost no literary promise. By the spring of 1855 Whitman had enough poems in his new style for a thin volume. Unable to find a publisher, he sold a house and printed the first edition of Leaves of Grass at his own expense. No publisher's name, no author's name appeared on the first edition in 1855. But the cover had a portrait of Walt Whitman, "broad shouldered, rouge fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr." Though little appreciated upon its appearance, Leaves of Grass was warmly praised by the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote to Whitman on receiving the poems that it was "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom" America had yet contributed. [...] At the time of his death Whitman was more respected in Europe than in his own country. It was not as a poet, indeed, but as a symbol of American democracy that he first won recognition. In the late 19th century his poems exercised a strong fascination on English readers who found his championing of the common man idealistic and prophetic. -- EB Viewpoint: Under the influence of the Romantic movement in literature and art, Whitman held the theory that the chief function of the poet was to express his own personality in his verse. The first edition of Leaves of Grass also appeared during the most nationalistic period in American literature, when critics were calling for a literature commensurate with the size, natural resources, and potentialities of the North American continent. "We want" shouted a character in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Kavanagh (1849), "a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies." With the same fervour, Whitman declared in his 1855 preface, "Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves." In Leaves of Grass he addressed the citizens of the United States, urging them to be large and generous in spirit, a new race nurtured in political liberty, and possessed of united souls and bodies. It was partly in response to nationalistic ideals and partly in accord with his ambition to cultivate and express his own personality that the "I" of Whitman's poems asserted a mythical strength and vitality. [...] From this time on throughout his life Whitman attempted to dress the part and act the role of the shaggy, untamed poetic spokesman of the proud young nation. For the expression of this persona he also created a form of free verse without rhyme or metre, but abounding in oratorical rhythms and chanted lists of American place-names and objects. He learned to handle this primitive, enumerative style with great subtlety and was especially successful in creating empathy of space and movement, but to most of his contemporaries it seemed completely "unpoetic." Both the content and the style of his verse also caused Whitman's early biographers, and even the poet himself, to confuse the symbolic self of the poems with their physical creator. In reality Whitman was quiet, gentle, courteous; neither "rowdy" (a favourite word) nor lawless. In sexual conduct he may have been unconventional, though no one is sure, but it is likely that the six illegitimate children he boasted of in extreme old age were begotten by his imagination. He did advocate greater sexual freedom and tolerance, but sex in his poems is also symbolic--of natural innocence, "the procreant urge of the world," and of the regenerative power of nature. In some of his poems the poet's own erotic emotions may have confused him, but in his greatest, such as parts of "Song of Myself" and all of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," sex is spiritualized. Whitman's greatest theme is a symbolic identification of the regenerative power of nature with the deathless divinity of the soul. His poems are filled with a religious faith in the processes of life, particularly those of fertility, sex, and the "unflagging pregnancy" of nature: sprouting grass, mating birds, phallic vegetation, the maternal ocean, and planets in formation ("the journey-work of stars"). The poetic "I" of Leaves of Grass transcends time and space, binding the past with the present and intuiting the future, illustrating Whitman's belief that poetry is a form of knowledge, the supreme wisdom of mankind. -- EB Criticism: Whitman's aim was to transcend traditional epics, to eschew normal aesthetic form, and yet by reflecting American society to enable the poet and his readers to realize themselves and the nature of their American experience. He has continued to hold the attention of very different generations because he offered the welcome conviction that "the crowning growth of the United States" was to be spiritual and heroic and because he was able to uncompromisingly express his own personality in poetic form. Modern readers can still share his preoccupation with the problem of preserving the individual's integrity amid the pressures of mass civilization. Scholars in the 20th century, however, find his social thought less important than his artistry. T.S. Eliot said, "When Whitman speaks of the lilacs or the mockingbird his theories and beliefs drop away like a needless pretext." Whitman invigorated language; he could be strong yet sentimental; and he possessed scope and inventiveness. He portrayed the relationships of man's body and soul and the universe in a new way, often emancipating poetry from contemporary conventions. He had sufficient universality to be considered one of the greatest American poets. -- EB yet again. m.