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.
A certain kind of thinker reads this poem, and grows angry. I’ve heard people protest that Whitman is anti-intellectual; that Whitman has no business, as a poet, to come waltzing into the lecture-room and tell scientists how the world is — both reactions smack of both insecurity and irony.
Whitman is in no sense anti-intellectual. The man loves words, language, and the contest of ideas. Nor does Whitman devalue science, as some scientifically-minded intellectuals are wont to say. Rather, Whitman’s romantic rebellion against scientism amounts to an opening of the mind, to a recognition that, though science has brought us unimaginably far, we ought not sacrifice our imagination for petrified sentences.
In the lecture-room, closed off from the open night sky, some men fancy that they have captured, or are well on their way to capturing, the right set of sentences to represent reality. They fancy that our language is sufficient to capture reality. Especially, they fancy that so-called scientific sentences are the best for capturing the universe, and cramming it into a lecture-room.
But this is all to make the universe small, stale and stiff. Romantics would have us love the lecture-room, but to love more the door; and did a lecturer lock that door, romantics would have us revolt, and bust the door down. The universe cannot fit into a classroom; tomorrow cannot fit into yesterday’s ideas. There remains ever the silent unknown, which would dazzle us.
When I teach this poem, and especially when I teach this poem to science students, I love to use a particular scientist’s experience and analysis to lend support to Whitman’s poem. But before I get to her, let me draw your attention to the structure of the poem.
The poem is contains eight lines, the first four of which begin with the word when. This poetic device—repeating several lines with a single word or phrase—is called anaphora. Significantly, the word when connotes time. In the lecture-room, all who are present belong to a time. This poem was written in 1900, just before the revolutions of physics and astronomy which were to come. The people in this lecture-room are learning nothing timeless and eternal, but are learning the charts and diagrams which belong to a historically conditioned paradigm. Yet they persist in the illusion that they have it.
Whitman knew better. Not only did these scientists not have it in any ultimate sense, but simply in a historical and contingent sense, they did not have a privileged monopoly on all we could call knowledge. Having knowledge of how to write poetry well, for example, can have just as profound an effect on the human condition as the knowledge of how to write mathematical proofs. Whitman’s poetry in particular has done much to help America imagine what social equality looks like. And Whitman knew that yesterday’s poems would not suffice for the new America we are still busy imagining.
In poetry, and no less in the sciences, we must leave the door on the classroom unlocked, so that we may walk outside, so that we may walk out of our historically conditioned and contingent knowledge, to look up at romantically timeless stars, and imagine, in silence, what might be.
The first eight lines of this poem connote the historical conditions of the lecture-room, which is a product of civilization. Notice also the building, and expanding tension of the lines. The first is short, and each of the next three is longer than the one before it. This expanding quality brings the poem to nearly burst out of itself at its climactic moment, almost as the poet would break out of his historical condition, and into a timeless realm. It is as if he breaks out of his paradigm. Yet here, there is nothing to say.
The last four lines, paradoxically, describe this silent, timeless moment. He enters into a place of solitude, out of the inter-subjective objectivity of his time. Here, there is nothing said, nothing yet to say, and nothing here can be contained in the classroom. No matter how large we make the classroom—even in our post-modern world with high speed internet access in the classroom—, we cannot fit the stars therein; nor can we fit what scientific paradigm we might dream up tomorrow in yesterdays ideas; for it will always be the case that what fits in a textbook is at once conservative and yesterday’s ideas. The dreamers must step out of the classroom in order to step beyond it.
But let’s now return to the particular scientist I wrote of above. I like to suggest to students that this poem is structured like our brain. This poem, like our brain, can be divided neatly into two parts.
The left hemisphere can be thought of as a serial processor, or as organizing our experience into linear structures and categories. The first four lines, with their whens, and with the charts and diagrams, adding and dividing: these are analogous to the left hemisphere. Further, the left hemisphere is the primary center for language. It is this language which makes up the intersubjective objectivity which makes the lecture-room possible.
In contrast, the right hemisphere can be thought of as a parallel processor, or as organizing our experience as objects or images in space. The last four lines are composed without implying any goals, and are filled with words of silence and peace. These lines are analogous to the right hemisphere. The language of these four lines transcend the intersubjective objectivity of the lecture room. Here, the language is not dry and abstract; but here, the night is living, and mystically moist.
The scientist I would like to present to you is a brain scientist. In the middle of her career, she had a stroke. The stroke was in the left hemisphere, and took her ability to use language away from her. What she discovered in this process was this silent, mystical moist night to which Whitman points us.
Again, I will emphasize that neither Whitman nor I imply that science is not one of the supreme achievements of humanity. Rather, we both hold that we must leave the lecture-room door open, and imagine that tomorrow will somehow be greater than yesterday’s ideas.
I hope you enjoy this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight.” The link is below.