Walt Whitman’s century-old preemptive message to reformers

One need not be an English major to appreciate and understand this Walt Whitman poem, whose message is particularly applicable today:

“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;                  5

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.

Reformers could take a lesson from the speaker of this poem, who describes the way an expert astronomer effectively removes the speaker’s joy of learning about the stars. The lecturer presents his students with “figures,” “charts,” and “diagrams” that provide an overly-technical approach to astronomy that masks the inherent beauty in it.  The speaker, who soon becomes “tired and sick” of the lecture, decides that it is better to find joy in studying the stars on his own than in an environment like the astronomer’s “lecture-room.”

Walt Whitman really WAS a poet of the people, wasn’t he?


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