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In our opinion, apart from his peer Emily Dickinson, no American poet better expresses the ideals of non-conformity and independence than Walt Whitman. In this short but famous poem, he describes attending a lecture by a really smart astronomer, getting bored, and then going out by himself to look at the stars, as if to say, "I'll be the judge of that." Whitman is a prime example of what the nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called "self-reliance." A full hundred years before anyone uttered the term "punk music," Emerson was the spokesman for non-conformity and a go-your-own-way attitude. In the essay titled "Self-Reliance," Emerson advises, simply, "Trust yourself."
Based on "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," it seems Whitman wasn't big on school and lectures. You like him already, right? But, in fact, Whitman worked as a teacher as a young man. Besides, you earn the right to be snooty about school when you become the most iconic poet this nation has ever produced. He was very well read – including a big 'ol heap of William Shakespeare – but he didn't have a fancy degree to show for it. In "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," you get a faint sense of disdain toward formal education. Whitman perfected his brash, fast-paced style as a journalist for the Long Island Star and the Brooklyn Eagle.
Whitman wrote "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" in 1865, and the poem was published in 1867, in the fourth edition of his collection Leaves of Grass. Rather than publish new books, Whitman just kept adding to Leaves of Grass for his entire life. If he had lived today, he probably would have slapped a sticker on each new version that said, "Now with 20% more poetry! Bargain!"
The solitary message of the poem contrasts with the brotherly tone of Whitman's Civil War poems, many of which were published in 1865 in the short collection Drum Taps. Whitman was a deeply compassionate guy, and he served as a wound dresser for Union soldiers in the war. The experience had a profound impact on him, but "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" shows him emerging from the shadow of the war to focus on other subjects.
One day, you're sitting in class next to "Walt," the chatty, outdoorsy kid with that mischievous glint in his eye. Your math teacher explains for the twelfth time how to find the slope of a graph, but Walt is looking out the window at the slope of some interesting, crooked tree. All of a sudden, he sighs and strolls out of the room without saying a word, right past your math teacher, who just stands there holding the chalk in her hand, stunned. From the window, you can see Walt walk up to the tree, look it up and down, rub his chin, and wander away into the woods. Meanwhile, everyone in class is speechless, thinking, "Did he just do that?"
So, basically, Walt Whitman does what you've always wanted to do on those days when you're stuck indoors while it's nice outside. But the story wouldn't be quite so romantic if you didn't find out later that "Walt" went on to publish poems that were praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln, among other heavyweights of history.
Now, we're clearly mixing up the timeline for dramatic effect. Whitman wasn't a kid when he wrote this poem. He had already matured into a great writer, published his controversial Leaves of Grass, and tended to injured soldiers during the Civil War. But the point remains: "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" is a poem for people who refuse to take opinions at second-hand. Contrary to the "Down with Homework!" crowd, the poem doesn't make fun of learning and education. It argues that you can only learn so much in a classroom – at some point you have to go out and do stuff: trust Nature to be your teacher.
Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass
A digital museum exhibit put together by the Library of Congress, including photographs and manuscripts.
The Poetry Foundation
The foundation website on Whitman includes a wide selection of poems and, better yet, podcasts about Whitman during the Civil War, as well as a segment called "Was Whitman Really Gay." Also, a number of interesting articles can be found here.
One Life: Walt Whitman, a kosmos
An online exhibit on Whitman from the National Portrait Gallery.
The Walt Whitman Archives
The best website on Whitman that we he have found so far: you can find e-texts of all of the separate editions of Leaves of Grass here, as well as letters and criticism. Make this your first stop.
A Really Old Recording of Whitman's Voice
This is a 36-second wax cylinder recording of what is thought to be Whitman's voice reading four lines from the poem "America."
The Learn'd Astrophysicist
A lecture on the origin of the universe delivered by a contemporary "learn'd" astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking.
Whitman and Friend, 1865
A photograph of Whitman (the guy with the beard) and his friend Peter Doyle from 1865, the year this poem was written. Nice hats, boys.
Leaves of Grass
The title page of the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, in which "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" first appeared.
Walt Whitman's America, by David S. Reynolds
This book is called a "cultural biography" because it attempts to give a history of Whitman through the culture to which he belonged. That culture was defined by political oratory, a vibrant theatrical culture, and an emerging popular interest in science, among other things.
When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer, by Loren Long
Bet you'd never thought you'd see an illustrated children's book here, did you? That poor kid on the cover looks so unhappy. Is that a rocket in his pocket? Yes, yes it is.