Poet's Pick April 4
Walt Whitman: "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"
Selected by Michael McFee
National Poetry Month 2014

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Michael McFee's Poetry Month Pick, April 4, 2014

"When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"
by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


*Michael McFee Comments:

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” breaks neatly into two four-line parts. Its first half is anaphoral and cumulative, each line a little bit longer, a little more lecture-y, a little more difficult to get through – in line 2, not just proofs but figures as well, ranged (excellent spatial verb) in columns; in line 3, not just charts but diagrams also, to be added, divided, and measured, which feels like statistical overkill; and in line 4, the widest in the poem, a series of phrasal events which strain the limits of a single breath: the expected “When I heard” intro interrupted by “sitting,” emphasizing the speaker’s inertia; the “heard the astronomer,” a verb/noun arrangement already encountered several times; and finally, “where he lectured” (wielding all those numbers) “with much applause” (to the approval of his academic audience) “in the lecture-room” (Whitman’s tautological final touch, a lecturer lecturing in a lecture-room).

Then comes the turn to the poem’s last four lines, as clear and satisfying as a sonnet’s volta.

Line 5 is half the length of the previous line, a verbal relief. “How soon,” it begins, the cool monosyllable of “soon” echoing “room,” opening up the mouth and lips, and leading into the five syllables of “unaccountable,” which cracks the over-intellectual world of the poem wide open. Unaccountable: not capable of being made into an account or list, like all that astronomical data in lines 2 and 3; but also unaccountable, inexplicable, beyond explanation, free – which is to say, like the “I” of the poem, who was recently sitting and enduring the lecture and applause, but who now admits that the whole experience made him so “tired and sick” (three weary monosyllables framing the line) that he must take action. In line 6, “rising and gliding out” resurrect the sinking “tired and sick” character, and lead to the wonderfully unquantifiable “wander’d off,” the now-unaccounted-for speaker roaming nowhere in particular, relieved to be outside, away from the lecturer and applauders.

But Whitman doesn’t settle for a simple fade to solitary black. Line 7 doesn’t merely say he wandered off into damp darkness, which might have been accurate; no, he finds himself “in the mystical moist night-air,” those two adjectives a mouthful of alliterative m’s and s’s and t’s, the first one deepening the unaccountability of the unfolding scene, the second one juicy and mucosal, and the hyphenated compound “night-air” joining two somewhat generalized nouns into one very palpable one. That line ends with the nicely casual “from time to time” – i.e., now and then, no pattern or pressure to it, whenever he felt like it – and that phrase sets up the sublime conclusion: “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” Why sublime? Because the whole poem has led to that moment, where its tensions are resolved: not simply being “shown” something, staring studiously ahead, but looking up, as if in prayer, to the heavens; not passively listening to a pile-up of evidence, but engaging the silence, which, especially after all the lecturing, seems “perfect”; and ending not with ideas about the stars but the stars themselves, overhead at night for any of us wandering non-astronomers to look up at and appreciate, even if we can’t analyze them.

(Another sublime touch: that last line is, in fact, ironically countable, a line of fairly regular iambic pentameter!)

Is this too technical a reading of a text which turns away from over-technical readings of the heavenly text? Possibly. But I love how every stroke of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” works to reinforce and deepen its meaning, without ever straining to do so. Look at the title, with its three “er” sounds, as if a throat-clearing lecturer were searching for the right word – a doubled sound effect, given the identical line 1. Look at Whitman’s use of apostrophes, from the stiff and faintly sarcastic “learn’d” in the title and first line, to the more liberated “wander’d off” and “look’d up,” the only verbs in the poem’s second half. Look at how he makes the poem’s single sentence flow and turn and sustain its current, from first word to last, without drifting off into stagnant pools of digression. This brief but deep poem, in its language and movement, reminds us of the limits of being learn’d, and of the human value of sometimes being unaccountable.

About Michael McFee:
Michael McFee is the author or editor of fourteen books, most recently That Was Oasis (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012), his eighth full-length collection of poetry;  The Smallest Talk, a chapbook of one-line poems (Bull City Press, 2007); and The Napkin Manuscripts: Selected Essays and an Interview (University of Tennessee Press, 2006). He has taught in the Creative Writing Program at UNC-Chapel Hill for several decades.

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