When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer Analysis | Structure and Historical Context

When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer Analysis: Walt Whitman, Walter Whitman in total, was one of the most famous 19th American poets. Most of his compositions talk about democracy, love, human emotions, friendship, and describing pastoral beauty.

Whitman’s works stood out even among his contemporaries because he did not subscribe to the trending rhyme scheme and metrical patterns while composing his poems.

He developed and practiced a personal writing style, and he even developed a modified version of the free verse. Being influenced by the theories followed in the Romantic Movement in literature, Whitman held that it was a poet’s responsibility to treat the audience with a hint of their personality through their works.

Students can also check the English Summary to revise with them during exam preparation.

A central theme of the theory that he implements in his works circumferences around the connection between nature and the human soul.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer is a part of the anthology – Drum-Taps. This is an example of the exclusive style of free verse by Whitman. This poem talks about how science cannot facilitate the understanding and discovery of nature as much as an individual’s connection with nature.

Structure of the Poem When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer

The poem is structured around the personally developed style of free verse by Whitman. The poet has involved multiple literary devices in the body of the poetry. The device of Anaphora as ‘When I’ is repeated at the inception of each line to affirm the view and opinion of the poet.

The poem is sufficiently provided with imageries in several instances. The poet has used the devices of Assonance, Consonance and Alliteration in various cases too. The poet has employed the device of hyperbole in order to portray the intensity of a sentence.

For example, in the line where he mentions that he has glided out of the lecture hall – that is not practically feasible. There are eight lines in the poem without any distinctions between the stanzas. This, in a way, shows how Whitman did not follow the etiquette of poetry writing.

Analysis of ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

The poem is about the inferiority of human-developed science before the valor of nature and how one must be in unison with nature itself in order to know about it and experience it to the fullest – that no science can offer.

The poem’s title talks about an Astronomer or a figure of science, who is ascribed to be ‘Learn’d’ that is, educated by scientific terms. The poem accounts the poet’s experience of what happened to him or what he realized on listened to the ‘Learn’d Astronomer.

“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-


The first four lines technically talk about the whole experience of the poet listening to the Astronomer. This section of the poem projects proportional in technicality, where the hypothesis was proved upon technical terms and ‘ranged in columns.

‘Charts’ and ‘diagrams’ were referred to, and equations were solved within a restricted ‘lecture-room. This part highlights the restrictions and etiquette that come along with science.

“How soon unaccountable I became tired and


Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by


In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

This portion marks a transition in the mood as well as the narrative of the poem. The narrative shifts from the poet’s observation of the Astronomer’s teachings to his personal introspection and deliberation of nature, and the mood shifts to a contemplative one.

The poet clearly states that he got ‘bored’ and ‘sick’ of the Astronomer’s scientific proportions. Like his focus, he drifted out of the compact lecture-room, with a ‘rising’ or intellectually and philosophically elevated temperament.

He ascribed the quality of mysticism and suspense to the night-air – this shows how he tried to deliver to the readers that nature and its facades will remain a mystery to us forevermore.

The intrinsic theory of nature will never unfold to us but will remain concealed. He says that he looks up at the stars in intervals and is tormented and bewildered by its beauty, and being bereft of words, stares at it in silence.

Historical Context of When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer

Whitman was said to be influenced by the Romantic Movement, and we can find traces of his inspiration in this poem. This poem is a celebration of the supremacy of nature and romanticizes the agents of nature – these were the predominant traits of Romanticism.

Other than this, traces of Transcendentalism are also visible in the poem. The line’ rising and gliding’ accounts for it; significantly increasing signifies the elevation of thoughts in Transcendentalism.

Other than this, the mysticism ascribed to the agents of nature also stands proof for the involvement of Emerson’s theory of Transcendentalism in the poem.

Critics have pitched the reading that this poem might have been an outcome of Whitman’s experiences from his tenure in the American Civil war. Astronomy’s influence over the mid and late nineteenth century might have been a trigger for this poem’s reproduction.

Thereby, this poem projects the poet’s blatant hypothesis about being one with nature in order to experience the same, over trying to do so, by abiding by the rules in science.