National Poetry Month, day 10: Walt Whitman and the Learn’d Astronomer

During most of my college years, the Physics department was run by Dr. Don Roiseland, a guy who was frankly beloved on campus. He was a big, tall goofy guy, bald, with facial features that famously (at least to everyone in the student body) looked like Yoda. During the autumn, when the leaves fell, he would never stay on the sidewalks, preferring to scuff his feet in the leaves as he went; he would even castigate students for not doing the same. In his high-pitched yelp of a voice he’d exhort us to scuff leaves along with him. I had only a bit of direct contact with Dr. Roiseland, when he taught a few sessions of the Astronomy class I took as one of my science electives. He loved just winging it when he had an audience in the school’s planetarium, and his love of the universe was well-known around campus.

Sadly, Dr. Roiseland got sick with some kind of cancer and died during my senior year. I attended his memorial service, which was held in the school’s main auditorium; he packed the place, one last time. Various professors stepped up to give tribute, including one who read this poem by Walt Whitman.

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, 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.

There’s a problem, though. I sat there that day, listening to those lines, and I thought, “I’m not sure that means what the prof seems to think it means.” Because the poem refers to a person listening to a boring lecture that is reducing the universe to numbers and equations and charts and diagrams, with no wonder that one feels when one simply goes out and looks in silence at the stars. I thought the prof who read that missed the meaning.

Now, I’m not so sure. I think that the prof read that as something of a cautionary warning to those following in Dr. Roiseland’s footsteps, because Dr. Roiseland never did lose sight of how wondrous it is to look in silence at the stars. No matter how brilliantly he could run down the equations and the numbers and the diagrams and the charts, he could also just talk with amazement about how big Betelgeuse is, or hold forth on the beauty of a comet in the night sky.

You don’t have to lose the wonder to be a learn’d astronomer.

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