When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
Man and the Natural World Theme
Whitman frequently views man as being a part of nature in his writings, but not in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." The world of culture and knowledge – the ivory tower – stands apart from nature and even obscures it. With all of our equations and formulas, we think that we are learning about objects in nature when in fact we are just playing around in a closed and confined internal world. Knowledge of nature can only come from experience, he argues. It transmits itself to a willing soul as if by osmosis. Only the sensitive individual can integrate himself with his natural surroundings. If you like this philosophy, you might want to read Henry David Thoreau's classic book, Walden, written during the same period in American history.
Questions About Man and the Natural World
- Do you think that learning about natural phenomena can help you appreciate them?
- Is the speaker saying that direct experience is the only way to understand nature, or is it merely the best way? What can we hope to learn about nature through our senses?
- Do you think the kind of alienation that Whitman describes is a modern problem, or has it always existed for human beings?
- Can you imagine a society in which the stars and other natural events have a direct presence in people's everyday lives?
Chew on This
The poem describes the modern condition of humanity: we cannot feel at home in the world because we have too much knowledge of it.