Study Guide

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer Summary

The speaker remembers sitting at a lecture. He is politely listening with his hands folded in his lap. He watches as the lecturer, a famous and renowned astronomer, goes on and on (and on) about the stars. Except he isn't talking about the stars. He's talking about equations and numbers and funny-looking pictures that seem to have nothing to do with the stars. The speaker is disappointed. Where are the stars?!

Suddenly he doesn't feel so good. His eyes droop. He feels nauseous, even. If he doesn't get out of that room, he's gonna hurl…

"Excuse me…'scuse me…sorry!" He gets up and heads for the exit. He walks outside and, what a difference! He is alone, and the night air feels fresh and dewy. He wanders away from the lecture hall. Every so often, he looks up at the sky, and there they are: the stars. Beautiful. No words of explanation could possibly capture them.

  • Lines 1-4

    Line 1

    When I heard the learn'd astronomer;

    • The speaker begins to tell a story or anecdote about this time when he went to see a really smart astronomer speak.
    • The word "learn'd" means "smart" or, more accurately, "well-educated." The usual pronunciation of this old-fashioned word would be "learn-ed," with two syllables. It's the kind of word you might hear in a Shakespeare play. But Whitman condenses it down into one syllable: "learn'd."
    • Whitman uses deliberately folksy speech patterns to poke fun at the astronomer. Just because it's more fun, you should imagine that "learn'd" is spoken in a really thick country accent. It's like saying, "I listened to that there professor fella!"
    • Astronomy is the study of stars and other heavenly bodies. In the 19th century, scientists didn't yet know about black holes, relativity, and other fun mind-benders. But they did know quite a lot about the solar system, satellite orbits, and even the position of Neptune! (source).

    Line 2

    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

    • He continues to elaborate on what happened when he heard the astronomer. Right now, it sounds a lot like the astronomer is giving the speaker a private lesson, which is pretty nice of him. We'll see about that one.
    • The astronomer presents mathematical "proofs," which are demonstrations of the truth of a statement of equation. You might remember having to prove that the three angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. The astronomer uses "figures," or numbers, as part of the proofs.
    • Notice that Whitman never mentions what is being proved. From the poem's perspective, it does not matter.
    • The figures and proofs are "ranged" (ordered) into columns.
    • The speaker looks at the astronomer like a really skeptical kid might look at a magician at a party. "He must have it in his left hand now!" Nonetheless, you can tell he seems overwhelmed by all the details.

    Line 3

    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

    • It still sounds like the speaker is receiving a private lesson in astronomy, and we're still like, "Dude! You should be taking advantage of this."
    • The astronomer keeps up with his numbers game. He shows visual representations of astronomical phenomena. We assume that "add," "divide," and "measure" are actions performed on numerical qualities ("them"), because you can't really divide a chart or diagram.
    • By now the speaker seems thoroughly confused. He is reduced to muttering random math phrases. Derivative! Matrices! Quadratic equation! Sorry, we don't know what got into us.
    • Whitman loves to repeat the same words or phrases at the beginning of successive lines, giving his poetry a chanting quality.

    Line 4

    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

    • Hey, Walt, when are you going to tell us what happened with the astronomer? Or maybe he just plans to spend the entire poem setting the scene. We're still starting lines with "when." This line zooms out to summarize the atmosphere of the room.
    • At least our picture of the setting has changed slightly. Suddenly we realize that the speaker is setting in a lecture hall among a crowd of people. The speaker may be confused, but the crowd is loving this astronomer. (We think this is really cool: can you imagine a crowd of average people cheering wildly for an astronomer?)
    • So, the astronomer is someone very smart who goes around explaining complex scientific ideas to normal people. Kind of like Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist and author of A Brief History of Time.
    • Public lectures were a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. Therefore, we don't think that the poem is set in a university or classroom, but rather in one of the many lecture halls that were built in towns and cities around the country.
  • Lines 5-8

    Line 5

    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

    • At last, the speaker gets around to telling us what actually happened when he heard the learn'd astronomer, and so on and so forth.
    • And what happens is…he comes down with the flu. Well, not really. But he does feel "tired and sick." He doesn't make it very far into the lecture before this happens. Patience is not his strong suit.
    • It might be an exaggeration for him to call himself "sick," as if his frustration with the lecture has led directly to physical illness.
    • The word "unaccountable" is a clever response to the blizzard of numbers and charts presented by the astronomer. "Unaccountable" means "for no apparent reason." He cannot explain why he feels this way. His inability to explain contrasts with the astronomer, who believes he can explain even such mysteries as the night sky. Plus, "unaccountable" obviously contains the word "count," just in case we had forgotten that the speaker really isn't a fan of the math.

    Line 6

    Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,

    • And there he goes. The speaker gets up and leaves the lecture hall, probably annoying everyone in his row in the process. Dirty looks abound.
    • But, to hear him tell it, the speaker's exit is as graceful as a ballet dancer. He literally "glides" out of the room. Classy.
    • Our speaker is obviously the kind of person who would leave a movie after ten minutes if it looked like the plot wasn't going anywhere. He doesn't like to waste time.
    • He wanders around by himself: where's he going?

    Lines 7-8

    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

    • Outside the lecture room, all is dark and quiet. The air is "moist" with dew or humidity, which sounds like a warm, sticky summer night to us. Every so often he looks up at the stars but, unlike the astronomer, he doesn't try to explain them or even express their beauty (though, in a sense, that's what the poem does).
    • "Mystical" means unified with God or nature. "Mysticism" is a solitary religious activity – the very opposite of the communal, educational atmosphere of the lecture hall. To be a mystic, you don't need to have an education. You only need to have your spiritual sense open to the world.
    • If you think "mystical moist" gives a slightly sexual or erotic impression, we're right there with you. Whitman frequently uses expressions that can be interpreted in either a sexual or non-sexual way.
    • The speaker's silence obviously stands in contrast to the astronomer's jabbering on and on about equations and numbers. The speaker enjoys the stars rather than trying to explain them. For a poem with "astronomer" in the title, we're surprised that the word "stars" is not used until the very end.
    • Whitman's choice of words in this poem is brilliant. Because we can never fully understand the stars, all knowledge of them must be incomplete or "imperfect." Silence, on the other hand, seems to capture their beauty "perfectly."