Thursday, March 12, 2009

Walt Whitman--"When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"

It's short, so I might as well type it out for anyone who hasn't already got it memorized:

"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."

Gil Roth, over at his site, has a semi-regular feature on famous authors of whom he has never read anything. Apart from this single 8-line poem, which I read for the first time when I was 38 years old (judging from the Internet, everyone else apparently reads this in high school; but as I attended three different high schools, I must have managed to miss this whenever they read it at any of them. I avoided ever having to read The Lord of the Flies this way as well. On the other hand, I got to read A Separate Peace and Great Expectations twice), I am 0-fer on Walt Whitman, and that includes the rest area, which I believe is south of Exit 6, where I always turn off to go to Pennsylvania. Since many people consider him to be the greatest poet in the history of the United States, as well as one of a very small handful of genuine literary world-geniuses that America has ever produced, this is a rather significant omission. I expect if I can manage to live another ten or fifteen years I will get through the whole Leaves of Grass someday. It is on my List somewhere, and I will doubtless adhere to my List unless some exciting vision of a different course of life jolts me to leave it off and pursue another line, which seems unlikely. Normally I would hold that it is better to be acquainted with the greatest achievements in any field as early in life as possible, that one may have more years to be able to incorporate their animating spirits into one's own intellect and person in a somewhat natural-seeming manner; though at the same time it is perhaps one of life's understated, though I think inevitably disappointing thrills to have a few potential treats left to anticipate for the slog of middle age. Besides, I admit I have always been a little wary of Walt Whitman. His champions tend to present him as a kind of authentic, almost perfect American--earthy, unrepressed, self-created, alive to the subtle rhythms of the language and life of the new world. His persona thus manages to be both a repellent and a reproach to me at the same time, for I am the absolute opposite of this type of American--i.e., I am the hidebound sort--and thus can expect little affection from anyone who considers Walt Whitman a prototype of our best type of selves. Given the poem's evident place in the current intellectual life of the nation as a high school staple, I am not going to indulge in any earnest analysis of it. You may assume I, a man of wide reading and experience of the world, understand its insights more than adequately. Of course when I tried to answer the two questions on the poem in the GRE test guide which is the source of my reading list I missed them both. The first one was: "All of the following oppositions or contrasts are present in the poem EXCEPT" (A) applause/silence (B) scientific analysis/mysticism (C) mathematical certainty/error (D) light/dark (E) group/individual. The correct answer was (C). I chose (D), not because I actually thought it was right either--I guess the question involved too much complicated thinking for me--but because I figured that contrast was too obvious/ mundane to merit serious consideration in a masterwork of poetry. The second (of course there had to be a second) was: "Which of the following words has more than one meaning in context?" (A) Figures (line 2) (B) Measure (line 3) (C) Applause (line 4) (D) Mystical (line 7) (E) Perfect (line 8) Th answer was (E). I think I refused to play the game at this point, like the cats who refuse to push levers and demonstrate logical thinking skills to receive food in science studies as mice and dogs do. One could interpret any of them as having a double meaning, except applause. I thought both questions were rather weak, really. I certainly hope the reason for my having to spend most of my life warehoused at a great remove from any kind of living society of learning and litterateurs is not due to these kind of subtle, teeny-tiny little faux pas. I'm sure it is not, is in most part due to failings of much vaster and probably insuperable import with regard to understanding what art, thought, etc, and their relation to the vital life signify. But still, the small failures constititute a substantial part of the big.

Having established now that I probably don't have the slightest understanding of what the poem is about, I suppose it hardly matters whether I liked it or not. This is a blog entry however so naturally I am going to try to tell, anyway. Here is what I wrote in my book: "I like it, I see it, the American atmosphere. Nature being outside the lecture-hall for a man to indulge in is well-(?conuited). Word choice good. Poem is good/it effects, it is quite ingenious." Oh my. I also thought significant the "forces of reason/science" represented by such words as "proofs", "figures", "ranged", "columns", etc, and thought the word "moist" supposed to evoke life. On a few further perusals I do still like the construction of this poem, the unlikely subject/conceit, and the amount of punch that is packed into a very small space of lines. When I said, "I see it" however, this was a bit misleading. I see it as a construction of my imagination, as what I think the atmosphere of America as presented by Walt Whitman is supposed to look like, but not as any kind of immediate participant in its language, its attitude, the feeling it conveys. I have failed as yet to connect with it on any surer ground than this.

Due to the bridge named after him which connects Philadelphia with Camden, New Jersey (where he lived most of his later life and is buried), people in that part of the world still have to invoke Whitman's name aloud a lot (I think this gives him a lot of power/positive energy even from the regions of the dead, doesn't it?), which, according to the local colorists, they pronouce as "Wall Women". For the record, as someone who lived--well, at this point, only about half my life--in that area, I assure you, the only people I ever heard pronounce the poet's name in any way resembling "Wall Women" in reference to the bridge were such as had actual learning or speech disabilities.

1 comment:

Hannah Ard said...

Someone at SJC once referred me to this poem to explain why he couldn't stand sophomore math, and preferred instead to gaze at the stars.