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Featured Poem: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

Written by Emma Walsh, 31st May 2016

This week our Featured Poem celebrates the great American poet Walt Whitman on what would have been his 197th birthday.

An admirer of the poet, William Sloan Kennedy once speculated that "people will be celebrating the birth of Walt Whitman as they are now the birth of Christ." We haven't quite pushed the boat out that far but we thought another Featured Poem from Whitman would be appropriate.

Commonly recognised as one of the most influential poets of the American canon, Whitman's work broke the boundaries of poetic form, earning him the distinction "father of the free verse".

His acclaimed collection Leaves of Grass, which he continued to edit and revise until his death in 1892, is seen as one of the great American epics, written from the perspective of and for the common people, with a cadence based on the Bible. Whitman saw himself as something of a Messiah to American poetry and believed that there was a vital, symbiotic relationship between the poet and society, writing in the preface to the 1855 edition, "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."

This opinion, though self-ingratiating, was shared by many of his peers and admirers:

"You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass... He has expressed that civilization, 'up to date' as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him." Mary Smith Whitall Costelloe

In 1855, Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, printing just 795 copies at a local print shop. It was widely distributed however, stirring up significant interest within literary circles and beyond but it also faced severe criticism from many quarters who deemed it obscene in its overt sexuality.

This criticism almost threatened the release of the second edition which did, in the end, go to print with 20 additional new poems, in August 1865.

Walt Whitman edited and revised the collection throughout the remainder of his life, publishing 9 editions in total, growing from a collection of 12 poems to a compilation of over 400 works. Impressive as that number may be, it's eventual volume did undo Whitman's original hope that the first edition, a pocket-sized book that could be carried upon the person, would "induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air".

So, ever the champions of reading aloud, we thought we should all follow Whitman's intentions on his beautifully sunny birthday and take this poem, from the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass, outside to read in the open air.


When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

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.

Walt Whitman

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