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Analysis of When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

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Walt Whitman had written and published a few hundred poems during his lifetime. His poems are recognizable for his use of free verse and the vivid images that his writing portrays. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and “The Dalliance of the Eagles” are no exception to that trend. Neither poem is very long, but Whitman is still able to convey deep meanings and lessons and paint magnificent images for the reader.

To summarize Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” the speaker is at a lecture about astronomy. The speaker looked at the diagrams, charts, and figures before him and “became tired and sick” as he had a difficult time grasping the topic, despite the intelligence of the lecturer (Whitman 5). However, when he left the lecture hall and experienced the sight of the stars in the night sky, he began to understand the excitement of the subject matter. In the poem, Whitman uses the lecture to show the difference between learning in a class or from a speech and learning from one’s own experiences and experiments. The speaker feels no connection to astronomy until he goes outside and looks up at the stars and sees them for himself. No matter how smart or “learn’d” a teacher may be, experiencing things is sometimes the only true way to learn and understand (Whitman 1). — The use of the word “learn’d” instead of the full word “learned” shows that the speaker is likely not as educated as the astronomer and becomes bored quickly in a lecture. With this poem, Whitman shows there is a distinct difference between wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom is learning through experience and is shown as the speaker only appreciates the stars and the night sky when he gazes at its wonder himself; wisdom is intuitive. Knowledge comes from textbooks, research, and other things similar in nature; knowledge is tangible. The speaker and the astronomer are foils as they have opposite beliefs on which of these is favorable.

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“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is one of Whitman’s shorter poems, however, he describes so much in just a few lines. The poem is one stanza long with a total of eight lines in that stanza. There is also no rhyme scheme or meter, which is common in his poems. His use of free verse makes the poem have a similar flow to that of someone talking and gives it an anecdotal feel. This feeling is also achieved through the different lengths of the lines and the difference in placement of unstressed and stressed syllables within the lines. The first two lines have the stressed syllable located on the third beat where they begin with “When I heard” and “When the proofs,” respectively (Whitman 1, 2). However, Whitman moves the stressed syllable of the third line to the fourth beat as it says, “When I was shown” (Whitman 3). There is no obvious pattern between each line and the shifting in the location of the stressed syllable does attribute to the flowing anecdotal feel. When outlining the setting of the lecture and giving the situation in the first four lines, Whitman uses anaphora with the repetition of the word “When” at the beginning of each of those lines. This use of anaphora, in a way, separates the set-up of the poem from the rest. When telling of the swiftness at which the speaker exited the room, the word “gliding” is used and is an example of hyperbole as it is unlikely he walked on a surface which that would have happened. Later, Whitman uses alliteration when describing the setting outside the lecture hall as a “mythical moist night-air” (Whitman ——).“Perfect silence” is a tautology included on the final line and adds emphasis to the awe and peace of the speaker while looking at the stars above (Whitman 8).

“The Dalliance of Eagles” is a celebration of life and love and is shown through eagles. The speaker noticed two eagles while he was on his morning walk. These eagles were attracted to each other and flew together, locking their talons, cartwheeling through the sky. They fell toward the ground but disengaged their tight grip to each other before they would have crashed. The lesson Whitman portrays from this description of eagles’ love is that people are not willing to sacrifice things for people they so-called “love” but still want a perfect life and for everything to go their way. For both the eagles to remain alive they had to part let the other go on their own “separate diverse flight, / She hers, he his” (Whitman ——). Although they mated and displayed their love, the eagles chose to be free and not held back after falling and unlocking their talons – they chose freedom. Sometimes the best thing to do when you love someone is to make a sacrifice and be free of each other. The symbol of the eagles represents freedom and bravery. Like Whitman shows through the eagles, life is what one makes of it and people should live freely and not be afraid. Leaving something or someone behind can be scary but it can at times be the only way to keep you from crashing into the ground.

In his poem “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” Walt Whitman uses a similar style to that of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” Like “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” the poem is written in free verse. In “The Dalliance of the Eagles” the use of free verse expresses freedom and flowing movement as with the described image of the eagles. Additionally, the syntax used in the poem is very descriptive and vivid and paints beautiful images for the reader. The mating ritual of the eagles witnessed by the speaker has a deep description that makes it feel as though you are seeing exactly what the narrator sees. Phrases like “clinching interlocking claws,” “living, fierce, gyrating wheel,” and “tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,” give the reader an unmatched visual of what is happening with the eagles even if they are not familiar with the practices of the bird. Overall, there are many symbols and images that can convey the theme that Whitman attempts to get across in “The Dalliance of Eagles.” Whitman takes what is a not-so-pretty and brutal sight and is able to describe it in a way that makes it seem beautiful and majestic. The process of splitting apart and making a sacrifice is made a lighter topic by Whitman and shows that it can be more necessary than one might think.  

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