When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

Whitman, Walt

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Mahl, Evan
  • Date of entry: May-07-2001


The narrator recounts a day sitting through an astronomy lecture, listening to the astronomer's dry mathematical descriptions of the stars, and watching their arrangement into charts, columns, and figures. During the lecture he becomes "tired and sick" and wanders off into the "mystical moist night-air" to silently gaze up at the stars.


In this short poem, Whitman explores the tension between the scientific world-view, which in the nineteenth century was increasingly supplanting more traditional means of understanding, and that of the poet (or perhaps any person viewing the world without the lens of science). Whitman characterizes the scientific approach toward nature as dry and dull--only when the narrator leaves the lecture hall does astronomy mean something, when, alone, he looks up in awe at the night sky.


First published: 1865. Vintage edition introduction by John Holland and notes (copyright 1982) by Justin Kaplan.

Primary Source

Leaves of Grass


Vintage: Library of America

Place Published

New York