Study Guide

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer Dissatisfaction

By Walt Whitman

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Whitman really isn't pleased with the astronomy lecture. We can sympathize, kind of, but we also think that there are worse things than spending a couple of hours in a room listening to a world-famous expert on celestial bodies. (For one thing, when he read the ad for the "Astronomy Lecture," what was he expecting: a laser show?) The speaker's reaction goes even beyond run-of-the-mill boredom. He feels nauseous and exhausted, as if the numbers the astronomer talks about were physical objects that assaulted his senses. The dissatisfaction in the first half of the poem sets up a contrast with the enormous feeling of relief and joy in the second.

Questions About Dissatisfaction

  1. Why is the speaker so darned unhappy with the lecture? Seriously, he acts like a queasy kid getting off a rollercoaster.
  2. Why does he describe his symptoms as "unaccountable," as if there were no explanation for them? How would you put his dissatisfaction into words?
  3. How do the sound and form of the poem express the speaker's growing dissatisfaction?
  4. Do you think the speaker would have been as happy to look at the real stars if he hadn't just sat through a really boring talk? Does this complicate the poem's message at all?

Chew on This

The form and sound of the poem express the speaker's dissatisfaction using repetition and tautology.

The speaker has a physical reaction to the lecture because he does not separate the body from the soul.

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