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When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer: How Walt Whitman Illustrated the Intellectual and Emotional Side of a Person

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Walt Whitman

In every human, there is a split between the intellectual and the emotional. The intellectual is the rational sensible part of a person, and the emotional is the feelings and emotions connected to a person. In order for a normal individual to function properly, he or she needs to balance these two parts and use each one in its proper place. For example, if a mother would think rationally about having children, she might come to the conclusion that the means do not justify the ends. Therefore, it is imperative that she considers it from an emotional standpoint in order to understand that even though logically having children doesn’t make sense, it is the most amazing thing a woman can do.

In the poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman describes a simple man listening to a lecture by an astronomer. From the first line, “When I heard the learn’d astronomer,” Whitman shows us the intellect of the individual in the poem. The fact that he wrongly spells “learned” reveals that the individual does not possess a high intellect. It even seems rather comical that such an individual would be attending a lecture about astronomy.

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“When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me”—Here we see that the individual is unaware of the meaning behind the numbers but simply refers to them all in a childish manner as figures in columns. Whitman makes it feel as if the figures were a dark, scary wall towering over the individual, cutting him off from what everyone else seems to be looking at.

In the line “When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,” Whitman seems to be painting a picture of a classroom, the center of the intellect.

It seems as if the individual is about to take a test and be graded among his peers. Again, we find a trace of fear hidden behind these childish words—the last remains of any self-esteem washed away by a river of numbers and equations.

“When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room”–Here, just like in the first example, we have to wonder what this individual is doing sitting in a lecture hall listening to an astronomer. It seems obvious from what Whitman is showing us in terms of spelling that the individual is far below the intellectual standard needed to understand an astronomer’s lecture. The last part of the line brings a metaphorical tear reminiscent of a young child being shunned away from a group of friends. The individual doesn’t know why the crowd is clapping, but he knows he is missing out on something.

“How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick”–From here we seem to get an answer out of the first question we posed: What is this individual doing in a lecture about astronomy? Whitman gives us a hint by the use of the word ”unaccountable.” It seems as though the individual wants to sound intelligent; he is yearning for a change to show the world that he is not an outcast, unable to relate to modern humans.

Rather, he is trying to show everyone that he is like you and I, a person capable of appreciating astronomy and art.

“Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself” –Now comes the realization that he is different from the rest of society, the implication of the words “by myself” ringing in the empty world around him. He is a loner, unable to withstand the tortures of a lecture while all the people around him seem to be basking in the illumination of astronomy. He asks what makes him so different, but no one is there to give him a reply.

Whitman gives us a beautiful wrap-up: “In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time. Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” After being rejected and shunned from the intellectual side of the world, he now reflects on what he has been able to retain that others have not: an emotional vantage point. What makes the stars perfect to him is the fact that they remain pure and untainted by the reality of what they are. To an intellectual mind, stars are no more than balls of gas up in the sky, but to this individual they can be anything from old kings looking down upon the earth and guiding us to gods in heaven helping out the weak and shining down on them. To him, perfection comes from the ability to feel emotion rather than from a purely intellectual way of looking at the world.

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