Sometimes there’s a poem whose verse is wonderful, but with whose message you disagree. Such is the case here, for me. Walt Whitman was one of the great poets of all time — in fact, he was probably one of the greatest human artists of all time, in any field — but this poem falters for me.
I first heard this poem read by a faculty member when I was at Wartburg College — I think it was my senior year — when our school’s beloved physics professor, Dr. Donald Roiseland, passed away after a fight with cancer. I heard this poem at his memorial service, and I thought “Well, that was lovely,” and went about my day. Later I dug out my collection of Whitman and looked the poem up…and when I read it back to myself, I wondered about it.
The poem seems to be arguing that the scientific way of looking at things is somehow lacking, and that it removes the beauty inherent in our universe by burying it under numbers and graphs and charts and diagrams; that to hear what science has to say about the world is dispiriting and that one should atone by going out and looking silently upon the world’s beauty.
Well…I have a problem with that, and I have a feeling that Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Jacques Cousteau, and many others would as well. The learned astronomer has not abandoned the beauty of the world; the learned astronomer has exposed more of it.
I think Whitman can be forgiven his view here, given the time in which he lived, but still…I wish he’d have been able to attend upon some of the beauty in those diagrams and charts and figures.
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.