When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
by Walt Whitman
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Math

Symbol Analysis

We think that going to see an astronomer explain the stars and planets would be fun, but the speaker isn't having any of it. He doesn't like the way the astronomer puts the mysteries of nature into numerical form. You get the impression that the speaker (and perhaps Whitman himself) does not understand math very well, as he seems to throw out general terms without noting any relation between them: Proofs! Figures! Charts! Divide!

  • Line 2: If you've ever been confused in math class, you know exactly what the speaker is describing here: a flurry of numbers that don't seem to fit together. The phrase "before me" turns the numbers into a concrete image. The word "ranged" could be a pun: the primary meaning is "ordered," but the word can also mean the opposite, "wandered." It's as if the numbers were wandering away from his understanding.
  • Line 3: This line contains more concrete math images: "the charts and the diagrams." The word "them" does not have a clear referent, as far as we can tell. Does it refer to the figures, the proofs, the charts, all of the above? (OK, now we're starting to sound like a math quiz.)
  • Line 5: The word unaccountable looks like a pun to us. The literal meaning is, "unexplainable" or "for no apparent reason," but it also contains the shorter word, "un-countable."