When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
by Walt Whitman
When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer Theme of Spirituality
Whitman was not thrilled by organized religion. He was more of a mystic. Mysticism refers to direct contact with the divine and unity with God. The speaker calls his connection with the night air "mystical," implying that God exists within and through nature. Whereas the astronomer might argue that his abstract knowledge amounts to a contemplation of divine and eternal things, Whitman affirms the importance of the body and the senses over the mind. You could call Whitman's spirituality "democratic," in that it is completely accessible to common people in its most advanced and powerful forms. You do not have to follow a particular sect or creed to experience it.
Questions About Spirituality
- Which parts of the poem are associated with the body, and which parts are associated with the spirit? How do you know?
- Do you think it is possible to have a spiritual experience while learning about how the world works in a scientific manner? If so, how would it be different from the experience Whitman describes at the end of the poem?
- What would be your own personal definition of the word "mystical"? How have you heard this word used in other places?
- Explain, in your own words, the image of the speaker looking up at the stars. How does looking at the stars make people feel?
Chew on This
The poem compares hierarchical religious ceremony unfavorably with democratic mysticism.
The speaker's escape from the lecture amounts to a flight from adult responsibilities in an impossible attempt to reclaim the safety of childhood.