When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

Like diamonds in the sky painted black, the stars are the treasure within the night sky. People often find stars calming and wondrous, in awe of their natural beauty. In Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, a student discovers the meaning of the stars by looking at the stars. Although the poet remains indifferent of the subject of the poem, the tone still shifts in regards to the students attitude; this shift is done so by utilizing literary devices such as imagery and syntax.

The poem begins with the student sitting through a lecture given by an astronomer. The lecture is dry and the student grows bored as “the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before [him]”, showing him “charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and to measure” based on the problems given. This imagery gives an image of an complex college lecture that focuses on science and mathematics behind the stars and the space. The long, unenthusiastic list of what he is taught in the lecture gives off an apathetic tone of the student towards the lecture.

The student soon grows very disengaged as he soon became “tired and sick”, suggested that he became so bored to the point he became disgusted and also became aware of his tiredness. Unable to tolerate the lecture, the student gets up and “glides” out of the lecture only to wonder around the campus. The combination of the diction “glide” and “wonder off” helps the reader to imagine how he slipped out of the lecture to mindlessly wonder around, having no intention or directions in his mind. At this point of the poem, the careless tone of the student can be interpreted as he neglects the class to do something unmeaningful.

However, within the “mystical moist night-air”, the student discovers the “perfect silence at the stars” as he looks up in the sky. From the syntax used, the night is portrayed as an mysterious canvas for the stars. The tone also shifts from careless to peaceful as the student admires the stars in awe. Unlike the lecture, the stars remain silent and nonfactual; however, their presence and beauty speaks for itself and teaches the student about its true identity.

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