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Jennifer E.

Hansen
Professor Stephanie Maenhardt
ENGL-2600-400-Sp15
April 30, 2015
Amid the Stars and Flowers
Is beauty only skin deep? If you probe and analyze and dissect a thing to its most basic parts, is
your appreciation of the whole diminished or enhanced? If an artist or a poet looks up at the stars,
perhaps they see something mystical and mysterious, but are the stars dimmed for the scientist who
looks and sees far off flaming balls of gas, and envisions equations and theories that are meant to
quantify the magnificence? Can a scientist be a poet?
Walt Whitmans famous poem, When I Heard the Learnd Astronomer is perhaps one opinion.
Whitman is perhaps the most iconic of American poets. He did not have a classical, formal education,
and perhaps because of that had a high respect for knowledge gained from life and nature. He was very
well read. . . but he didn't have a fancy degree to show for it. In "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer,"
you get a faint sense of disdain toward formal education. . . the poem doesn't make fun of learning and
education. It argues that you can only learn so much in a classroom at some point you have to go out
and do stuff: trust Nature to be your teacher. (Shmoop Editorial Team, intro)
In spite of what some may call a disdain for knowledge gained in a classroom, Whitman was a
teacher for five years. But his first love was printing, and he eventually turned to journalism full-time. He
founded a weekly newspaper, and was the editor for a number of other papers. He self-published his
poetry in a book called Leaves of Grass, which he continued to add to, improve upon and re-publish
throughout his life. Whitman wasnt a fan of organized religion, but he did feel a spiritual connection to
nature, and he cared deeply for people. He spent a lot of his money taking care of his mother, invalid
brother, and soldiers that had been injured in the Civil War. (Poets, online) His self-educated

background, and his love of nature are important lenses through which to view his feelings about the
Learnd Astronomer:
When I heard the learnd 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 wanderd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Lookd up in perfect silence at the stars. (Whitman, 213)
When I Heard the Learnd Astronomer is eight lines of free verse that can be divided into two
parts. The first four lines are an anaphora; each line starting with When. This gives them a repetitive,
chanting sort of quality. Each of the first four lines is also longer than the one before it, which seems to
suggest a stretching of time. I can picture the subject sitting in the lecture room, at first perhaps excited
and interested, but as the astronomer gets into more and more technical material it becomes harder
and harder to pay attention, and it feels like the lecture is just dragging on.
The last four lines of the poem are shorter, lighter, and more pleasing to read. The listener has
finally had enough of trying to force his brain to understand all the proofs. . . figures. . . charts. . .
diagrams, and leaves the room. It feels sort of dream-like, because he doesnt stumble over the people
in the row next to him, but rising and gliding, just slips out of the room. To me, it almost feels as if he
didnt really physically leave, but that he fell asleep and his spirit floated out of the room to dream of
sweeter things. The second to last line has some lovely alliteration in the phrases, mystical moist night
air and time to time that are a stark contrast to all the facts and figures presented by the astronomer.

In fact, this is not the only contrast between the wording in the first and second halves. Why does he
abbreviate learned to learnd? It could be that he wanted nine syllables instead of ten, but since he
also abbreviates wanderd and Lookd, which doesnt change the number of syllables, he must be
showing a verbal contrast between the speaker and the astronomer. An educated person would not be
expected to cut off a word like that, so the speaker is showing his innocence of stuffy book-learning, and
Whitman seems to be saying that there is more value in the mystic appreciation of nature than in the
scientific explanation of it.
The last line is really the most lovely. He stresses the word silence by calling it perfect.
Silence is, by definition, perfectly quiet, so he is redundantly repeating himself in a way of emphasizing
his point. He is pointing out the difference between the quiet beauty of nature and the wordy lecture of
the astronomer. Whitman's choice of words in this poem is brilliant. Because we can never fully
understand the stars, all knowledge of them must be incomplete or imperfect. Silence, on the other
hand, seems to capture their beauty perfectly. (Shmoop Editorial Team, summary) There are some
things that cannot be quantified, but must simply be felt.
And yet, when the astronomer finishes his lecture, gathers his things, and walks out into the
night, does he look up at the stars and see nothing but cold mathematical points of light? Perhaps he
has a different appreciation of their beauty, but who is Whitman to say that it is less? Roughly a century
after Whitman populated the world with verse, the scientist Richard Feynman spoke of the beauty of
science. His artist friend would hold up a flower and say, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but
you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing. (Feynman, online) Does this sound
familiar, Mr. Whitman? Feynman took umbrage with his friends opinion that a scientist could not
appreciate the beauty of a flower. His contention was that he saw more beauty in the flower.
I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. . . I see much more about the flower than he
sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a

beauty. I mean its not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; theres also
beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. . . All kinds of
interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the
mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. (Feynman, online)
Feynman and his artist friend may look at the same flower in different ways, but they both saw beauty.
One persons perception of beauty is not diminished because another has a different view.
Is there beauty in proofs, figures, charts and diagrams, or is beauty solely found in the realm of
perfect silence? I say that beauty can be enhanced by a deeper knowledge of it, and the evidence can
be found in Whitmans own poem. A poem is a thing of beauty, and simply reading the pretty lines is an
appreciation of beauty. The reader who reads and re-reads, and wonders why the poet chose that word,
or that meter, and studies the authors life and philosophy does not lessen the beauty of the poem.
Rather the beauty is multiplied as layers of understanding unfold to the careful reader. So I say to the
poet and the astronomer, to the scientist and the artist; the world is a wondrous place, and I am awed
at the beauty that each of you sees.

Works Cited
Feynman, Richard. As quoted by Popova, Maria. Ode to a Flower: Richard Feynmans Famous
Monologue on Knowledge and Mystery, Animated. Brainpickings.org. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
<http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/01/ode-to-a-flower-richard-feynman/>
Poets.org. Poet: Walt Whitman. Poets.org. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
<http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/walt-whitman>
Shmoop Editorial Team. "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer: Lines 5-8 Summary." Shmoop.com.
Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Shmoop Editorial Team. "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc.,
11 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Whitman, Walt. When I Heard the Learnd Astronomer. Close Reading: an Introduction to Literature.
Howe, Elisabeth. Boston: Longman, 2009. 213. Print.