Walt Whitman Fails Astronomy

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

What is the situation here? The lecture-goer is attending a talk on astronomy but does not appear to be an astronomer himself. I see two possibilities: either he is a student taking an astronomy class, or he’s a attending a lecture given by an astronomer for the general public, a sort of 19th century version of what today would be a science documentary shown on public television.

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,

Perhaps the greatest American public television scientist was Carl Sagan, whose series Cosmos introduced a generation to the wonders of cosmology. Because he cut a slightly ridiculous figure–the pageboy haircut, epic turtlenecks, and a way of pronouncing the phrase “billions and billions” that still gets laughs–it’s easy to forget just how telegenic Sagan was. He commanded your attention with a persona that mixed avuncularity with a drop of eeriness as he piloted his show expertly between the twin perils of dryness and dumbing down. Sagan’s particular talent was an ability to convey a personal sense of wonder at the phenomena of the universe while keeping the focus on the phenomena themselves.

There wasn’t a lot of math in Cosmos. Though an indispensable tool for natural science, mathematics is a foreign language to the general public, and much of the popularizer’s art lies in the elision of the squiggly bits. Which is why Whitman’s talk of “proofs” and charts and diagrams that the audience is supposed to “add, divide, and measure” tilts me towards the astronomy class scenario. But maybe not. Maybe this is a talk for the general public, and the astronomer is just a bad public speaker. He got drafted into giving a lecture he didn’t want to do and threw something together at the last minute, forgetting that technical details that were second nature to him would be gibberish to non-specialists. This doesn’t make the man soulless, or deaf to the wonder of the stars. It just means that Whitman’s learn’d astronomer is no Carl Sagan.

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,

Now this sounds like the of reaction of a bored student (“How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick/Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,/And spent the rest of the evening drinking beer back at the dorm”), but was it the custom back then for students to clap at the end of every class session? Either way, stalking out in a huff seems rude. Everybody else in the room applauded, so presumably the astronomer said something right. Maybe it just wasn’t the lecture-goer’s cup of tea.

I’m being willfully dim here, though, because even if the exact setting is unclear, Whitman’s message is plain: in giving a dry lecture about stars packed with charts and figures, the astronomer has failed to evoke the sense of wonder one feels when looking up at the night sky and so has completely missed the point. But what would the lecture-goer have preferred? A series of short poems about what it’s like to lie out stargazing in a grassy field? Or perhaps a lecture that used the classical names for astronomical bodies as a jumping off point for a lively retelling of familiar stories from Greek myth? An episode of Cosmos might have done the trick too, but it would have had to been a good one, because Whitman’s lecture-goer is not easily amused.

The lecture-goer is upset because the astronomer failed to describe the stars on a relatable human scale, but it is he who has missed the point, because stars do not exist on this scale. Their size, distance, and age is literally inconceivable, and no form of language employed by fundamentally social mammals who reckon space in terms of meters and time in terms of days can ever really capture them. Stars don’t fit inside our heads, and a touch of alienation is the price you pay for attempting to speak about them on their own terms.

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Let me propose an amended conclusion to this poem. The lecture-goer heads home, pausing from time to time to look up in perfect silence at the stars, but only briefly, until their prettiness wears off. He’s so preoccupied with his own concerns that he walks right past the astronomer. The astronomer doesn’t notice him either, because he is standing perfectly still, neck craned towards the night sky, no clear thought in his head, transfixed and in awe.

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