Week 10, Whitman and the Civil War

Portraits of Ormsby Mitchel as both an astronomer and Civil War Union officer.
Portraits of Ormsby Mitchel as both an astronomer and Civil War Union officer.


This week's text is "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer"

This little poem initially does not seem like it belongs in Drum-Taps. The poem’s subject is obviously not the Civil War, but the tenor of the war times is nonetheless reflected in the speaker’s desire to escape a place of fragmentation (where the unified cosmos is broken down and divided into “columns”) and to regain a sense of wholeness. Union and oneness, pulling together that which has been separated—these are the subjects of many of the Drum-Taps poems, and they are also the focus of this poem.

The first half of “Astronomer” consists of four anaphoric lines of steadily increasing length; the insistent repetition of the opening “When” joins with the accumulating verbiage to build to a peak point of exacerbation, after which the speaker expresses in a final group of four brief lines his relief at getting out of the “lecture-room” and into “the mystical moist night-air.” The two halves of the poem, then, imitate the contrasting sounds of the scene: the first four lines (evoking the astronomer’s lecture) contain sixty-four noisy syllables, while the last four (moving toward the speaker’s “perfect silence”) contain only fifty syllables and diminish into the relative quiet of the final ten-syllable line with its hushed concluding fourfold assonance (“silence at the stars”).

As the speaker moves from the lecture room—with its demonstration of book learning—out into the night, he repeats a familiar pattern in Whitman’s poetry, as when the speaker of “Song of Myself” puts “Creeds and schools in abeyance” and leaves the “Houses and rooms” to “go to the bank by the wood.” The erudite astronomer presents the cosmos as an intellectual abstraction—a series of proofs and figures and diagrams—and receives applause for, in effect, having broken the cosmos down into charts and moved it into a lecture room, where the only brilliance the audience can see belongs to the astronomer, not to the stars. One has to go outside to see the actual stars, which speak their proofs in “perfect silence.” The speaker of the poem becomes “unaccountable . . . tired and sick” of the lecture, and the term “unaccountable” resonates with the speaker’s desire to experience the cosmos again as “uncountable,” as beyond the clever adding, dividing, and theorizing of the scientist.

And yet, as the speaker looks up at the sky, he does not forget the lessons he learned in the lecture room. He describes how he looked “from time to time” into the heavens, and what at first seems to be a kind of throwaway phrase suddenly signals one of the newly formulated concepts that the astronomer would have explained in his lecture: that light takes time to travel, and, when we look at the stars, we are not only looking across vast distances of space, but vast distances of time as well. When we look at the night sky, we are looking from our time to the light from distant pasts, “from time to time.” Whitman followed the work of astronomers carefully and would have been aware of the formulation of light-years through the work of Cincinnati astronomer Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (1810-1862), who gave a series of lectures in New York in the late 1840s (many of Whitman’s poetic images of the cosmos derive from Mitchel’s work) and who later became a major general in the Union Army, where he was known as “Old Stars.”

As so often happens in Whitman, the scientist’s lessons are not rejected but are absorbed by the poet, who employs them in surprising ways to create poetic truth. “Hurrah for positive science!,” Whitman writes in “Song of Myself”; “Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling, / I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.” In the “Astronomer” poem, the science enhances the poet’s experience of looking at the night sky. Astronomers’ discovery of the speed of light and the vast distances of the cosmos even gives Whitman the idea that his own poems can be like starlight, traveling through time, able to reach readers in 2016 who did not even exist when the poems were written by a poet who himself now no longer exists, just as we may be looking at stars in the sky that actually no longer exist but appear to be there because their distant light is still traveling to our eyes. The stars and planets often form a kind of vast and oddly comforting sense of permanence in Whitman’s Civil War poetry—an eternal backdrop (deep time and deep space) against which the horrors of war in one country on a tiny planet become temporary disturbances that will resolve themselves and even eventually disappear in the healing cosmic cycles of time.


"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 the 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.


What a terrible beauty—this was my first thought at the sight of tracer rounds during the siege of Sarajevo. Then I shook with terror; for the lights streaking across the night sky brought only death and destruction to the city encircled by Serbian forces. A bookish man who finds himself in a war zone is quickly disabused of his inclination to read his surroundings in symbolic terms—after all, one function of the tracer rounds used by gunners on both sides was to improve targeting—though I was still prone to stargazing there on clear nights. The bullets flew by at a fraction of the speed of the shooting star I saw above Mount Igman (the only escape route from the city), whose velocity was as nothing compared to that of the seemingly motionless stars revolving in the constellations overhead. This was what came to mind in Sarajevo when I realized that I knew by heart Whitman’s exquisite little poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It had become for me a touchstone, recalibrating in just eight lines my perspective on our place in the scheme of things, and when I considered the stars in the sky lit up by tracers my terror subsided.

Twenty years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, the poem resonates for me in other ways. Whitman’s ability to suggest in a single sentence the scale of the universe, absorb and recast scientific proofs and diagrams, and reveal the gulf between theory and reality remind us that in the interest of compression a poet can accelerate thought to the speed of light. Recite these lines, and the world may begin to hum and shimmer with meaning.

Here a question arises: why does the speaker glide into the “mystical moist night-air,” if in fact he is “tired and sick?” Indeed it sounds as if he is preparing to traverse the heavens, one star in a multitude of stars. The tidal rhythm that governed “Song of Myself,” the surging and ebbing lines that match the movement of his journey outward to the edge of the universe and inward into the depths of his soul, is echoed in the counter motions of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” the lines expanding in the first half of the poem until applause erupts in the lecture-room and then contracting in the second half into the speaker’s gaze “in perfect silence at the stars.” How far he will wander from the earthbound crowd to orbit not in the firmament but in the midst of wounded soldiers, who will instruct him in the true costs of division and fragmentation, the prelude to his reconstruction of a poetic vision large enough to contain both war and peace.

An unpaved forest road on Mount Igman, the site of the ski jump competition in the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, was the only overland supply route into Sarajevo during the siege. And it was on an icy stretch of that road, in the winter of 1995, that an armored personnel carrier (APC) pulled over to make room for a truck ferrying French peacekeepers to the airport—the front line between Bosnian and Serb forces. I was in that APC, en route to the port city of Split, Croatia, and when one young soldier fixed his eyes on mine I shuddered involuntarily with dread. Soon after, I learned upon reaching the coast, the truck skidded off the road and plunged down the heavily-mined hillside, killing nine peacekeepers—the worst incident of its kind in the war. That night I gazed at the stars above the Adriatic Sea in utter incomprehension.



Whitman absorbed the new knowledge that geological, evolutionary, and astronomical science made available in his time, and turned it into poetry. But he remains an exception to the widely-held belief that poetry and science are incompatible. (Some contemporary poets who find material in scientific discoveries include A. R. Ammons, Miroslav Holub, James Merrill, Pattiann Rogers, Allison Hawthorne Deming, Linda Bierds, and Richard Kenny.) How do you imagine the relationship between these different disciplines? What are a poet's obligations to the scientific method?

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