#19: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

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Hi Friends, if you’re just tuning in, every Wednesday, we talk Whitman! We are still trekking our way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, but I thought I’d mix things up a bit today. I was reading The New Yorker on the couch this Sunday, when I spotted a reference to a familiar face in this article: Ishion Hutchinson, Post-Post Colonial Poet, a review on Hutchinson’s second book of poetry, House of Lords and Commons.

But poets don’t want to be fodder for panels and colloquia, and Hutchinson’s poems are oppositional and disruptive, sometimes tauntingly so. “The Orator,” like Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is a poem about poetry itself, its immediate purchase on the sublime, so much more powerful than classroom circumlocution. A lecture on “Caribbean Culture” is delivered by a “bore” who “was harping in dead metaphor / the horror of colonial heritage.” Suddenly, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights, and the lecturer now stands helpless in the dark

So I thought it would be fun to pull up Whitman’s poem next to Ishion’s. First up, Whitman’s “When I Heard 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-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.

This poem is so quintessentially Whitman to me – shunning higher education institutions for the power of poetry and nature. Next up, Hutchinson’s “The Orator.”

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#18: The Ship Starting

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“The Ship Starting”

Lo, the unbounded sea,
On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails, carrying even
her moonsails.
The pennant is flying aloft as she speeds she speeds so stately—
below emulous waves press forward,
They surround the ship with shining curving motions and foam.

Vocabulary Word of the Day:
Emulous: seeking to emulate or imitate someone or something.

I think this poem has a nice cadence to it, so I would recommend reading it out loud. I like the repetitive use of “she speeds, she speeds.” We’ve seen a lot of water and sailing imagery so far in “Leaves of Grass,” whether Whitman is comparing his book to a boat – the lone bark cleaving the ether – or calling himself a river man. I think Whitman uses water in many way. Oceans are both frontiers to be crossed and part of the natural world that Whitman champions. Water nourishes us as well as separates us from one another creating boundaries and borders. I should compile a list of some of the water metaphors that Whitman has used so far – I’m excited to see what Whitman does next!

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!