Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Number 57: Walt Whitman "When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer"
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
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.
-- Walt Whitman
Hap Notes: Let's do a little repair work for good old Walt Whitman (1819-1892). I know that the general (and probably correct) interpretation of this poem is that Walt is having a bit of trouble with science as far as "learn'd" astronomers go. He says that science is sucking all the beauty out of the stars. I have heard it disparagingly interpreted as Whitman being anti-intellectual and against scientific progress. But, what I think he's saying is that he sat through a particularly boring lecture that every body applauded because the lecturer gave out a lot of scientific "facts." You know how people love "facts."
I think Walt is just bored the way you get bored at a "power point" lecture with one too many dopey Venn diagrams about consumers rather than just going out and talking to customers. Do you think Walt would have hated listening to Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman or Brian Greene? I highly doubt it. It's the lecturer that is the problem. The speaker, as far as Whitman can tell, is not excited in the least about the subject. "Charts" and "diagrams" and "columns"! I'm bored just imagining it. How many times has a dull lecture sucked the life out of a good book or poem? Walt just heard a very poor speaker. Wish he was around today to see how heart-poundingly exciting science is now. I don't think he'd have written this particular poem today, do you? (Well, unless he had my astronomy teacher in college who ended each sentence he said with the words "in here." So he would say "You will see a slight change in the positioning of the stars out there, in here." It was quite disconcerting and hard to follow, God bless him.)
I know I'm doing a lot of projecting here but I hardly think we can hold Whitman responsible for the irritating suspicion with which many people regard the sciences. Most of those people are highly suspicious of poetry and the arts, too. Whitman plowed so much new ground that it would be ridiculous to label him as old fashioned. But perhaps his lecturer was. I rest my somewhat shaky case.
Everybody knows Whitman, if not from reading him at least by reputation. His high-flying free verse electrified poetry. He worked on his famous Leaves of Grass from its initial publication in 1855 until its publication in final form in 1889, there were six editions between those dates (if you want to see each one page by page go here: www.whitmanarchive.org/ ).He was always tinkering with it. Whitman did not create "free verse" but he was a key figure in making it incredibly popular. He's the penultimate American with his free-wheelin' style, big heart and democratic views.
Whitman started out as a printer's apprentice (they called them "printer's devils") and later was a journalist. His compassion with Civil War wounded veterans was such that he stayed and worked at the hospitals in Washington for 11 years. He struggled to make a living but spent almost all he could get on things for the soldiers he visited. Whitman's verse was thought unruly and obscene in his own lifetime but certainly influenced poets from all eras and most particularly the "Beats."
Silly side-note: I can never see the name Walt Whitman now without hearing Jon Spencer's voice singing the final verse on "Big Road," (from Extra Width) the Blues Explosion song that lists the different exits on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Here's a nice Whitman quote: "The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people."
You can find more Whitman here: www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/126