Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Whitman's Learn'd Astronomer

Dear Everybody:

I went looking for something by Walt Whitman, everybody's favorite ecstatic and all-round good guy (during the civil war, he volunteered as a nurse at military hospitals, though it broke his heart to see the damage done, and spent a great deal of time reading to the young men, writing letters home for them, and so on). The trouble is that something like "I Sing the Body Electric" or "Song of Myself," among his greatest works, is long, long, long. But here, down a step perhaps, is one of his shorter works:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

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.

Now, I would argue that ol' Walt is being a little hard on the astronomer. Properly understood, there is a great deal of beauty and, yes, even poetry in those equations. I remember how I felt after a college astronomy class in which we ran through the cascade of equations showing the nuclear reactions starting at the sun's core and carrying heat all the way up to its surface. Absolutely floored. The thought that a human brain could comprehend such great energies in so few symbols, working from a limited number of observations, made me proud to be a hominid.

But Whitman was a feeler, not a thinker. He didn't get off on analysis but experience. He was, as they used to say, high on life! So, really, it's only two ways of looking at the same thing. And if he can't understand the astronomer, well... the astronomer couldn't have written this poem.

All best,

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