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Themes

That's right, wisdom and knowledge, for the two are not the same thing. Wisdom is gained through experience and activity, such as the exploration of nature. Knowledge, by contrast, is gained through culture. A geometry equation could be knowledge, but it's not wisdom. Same goes for the discovery of the elliptical orbits of the planets. In "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," Whitman turns away from knowledge in favor of wisdom, which he views to be as sudden and spontaneous as an intuition. The speaker's silence at the end of the poem is the strongest evidence of his wisdom, following the old saying, "Those who don't know, talk. Those who don't talk, know."

Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

  1. How is the difference between wisdom and knowledge defined in the poem, and, how do we define it today?
  2. Why do you think the speaker goes to the lecture in the first place?
  3. Is the speaker an example of Emerson's notion of "self-reliance"? Why or why not?
  4. Do you think the speaker has acquired a kind of wisdom by the end of the poem, has he possessed it all along, or is he no wiser than he was at the beginning?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The poem argues that true wisdom is a form of childlike play.

The poem manifests the transcendentalist idea that true reality is a unified substance behind the diverse forms of the external world.

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