When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer: Walt Whitman’s Timeless Reckoning with the Limits of Science
By Maria Popova
“To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his daybook upon receiving word of another great poet’s death. “Is there not something about the moon, some relation or reminder, which no poem or literature has yet caught?” he wondered as he approached the end of his own life.
As a young man, Whitman had written in the preface to his Leaves of Grass, which forever changed the soul and sinew of poetry:
The sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes… but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.
No literary artist has wrested grander themes out of the reality of the natural world, nor channeled those themes more beautifully, than Whitman, for whom astronomy was a particularly beguiling lens on humanity’s intimacy with nature. He lived through a golden age of American astronomy, when the first university observatories were being erected, when comet discoveries and eclipse observations regularly made the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. After astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the first moon of Mars, and soon the second, Whitman exulted in his notebook: “Mars walks the heavens lord-paramount now; all through this month I go out after supper and watch for him; sometimes getting up at midnight to take another look at his unparallel’d lustre.”
But as much as Whitman relished the discoveries of astronomy, the undiscovered cosmos called to him with even greater allure and he called back with uncommon divination. More than a century before the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet, this poetic seer peered far out into “the orbs and the systems of orbs.” Half a century before Edwin Hubble glimpsed Andromeda, upending humanity’s millennia-old conviction that ours is the only galaxy in the universe, Whitman envisioned that “those stellar systems… suggestive and limitless as they are, merely edge more limitless, far more suggestive systems.” A century before scientists theorized a multiverse, he bellowed from the invigorating pages of Song of Myself: “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
And yet as much as the triumphs of science thrilled him, as ecstatically as he sailed along the ever-expanding shorelines of knowledge into the vast expanse of the knowable, Whitman fixed his gaze on the horizon of the known, aware that past it lay an oceanic immensity infinitely vaster. A century before Carl Sagan insisted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Whitman revolted against the hubris of certitude and celebrated what science does not yet know, and perhaps might never know, in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” published in 1855 and brought to life in a stunning reading by astrophysicist and poetic science writer Janna Levin at the opening of the third annual Universe in Verse, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works — a dream many times dreamt since the founding of the city, many times attempted, and many times failed, including an effort in the middle of the 19th century advertised in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in which Whitman made his name.
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.
Complement with John Cameron Mitchell reading Whitman’s ode to the unfathomed universe below the surface of the ocean and Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the second annual Universe in Verse, then join me in supporting Pioneer Works and making this long-dreamt observatory dream a reality.
For more wonder and splendor at the intersection of poetry and science, savor Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, and James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem about the nature of knowledge.
Published May 31, 2019