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.
“Design, ” by Robert Frost (1936)
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
Robert Frost lived a life filled with hardship, grief, and loss. His Father died of tuberculosis when Frost was only eleven years old, leaving his family with only eight dollars. His mother died of cancer when he was 16. In 1920, Frost had to commit his sister to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later.
Mental illness ran in his family; both Frost and his mother suffered from depression; his daughter was committed to a hospital in 1947; and Frost’s wife also fought with depression.
Frost had six children with his wife. His son Elliot (1896-1904) died of cholera before he was ten; his son Carol (1902-1940) committed suicide at age thirty eight; his daughter Marjorie (1905-1934) died of of puerperal fever after giving birth at age twenty nine; his daughter Elinor (1907) died three days after her birth. Only two of his children outlived him: Lesley (1899-1983) and Irma (1903-1967). And his wife developed breast cancer in 1937, and died of heart failure in 1938.
By the time Frost first published “Design” in 1936, he had already lost three children and his wife, to say little of the other struggles of his life: the early loss of his parents, and the mental illness and depression that filled his world. His impression of this “Design” of nature is dark and deep, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Yet through his poetry he manages to find something lovely in nature: and this is what people emphasize when reading Frost’s poetry. We are all familiar with his famous lines in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” where he chooses to take the road less travelled by, which has made all the difference. This poem is often taken as a poem of optimism, of the beauty of following one’s own path, validating non-conformity.
There is nothing wrong with reading “The Road Not Taken” in this way, especially when teaching the poem to youth, who are looking to gain the courage to live meaningful lives, and who can be affected to the power of sunrise as many of us nearer sunset have long since forgotten.
There is much to be said for the argument that the author is dead, and that how the poem affects the reader is what counts. Sometimes this is the best way to read, since we weave our own lives as we would interpret them—with or without poetry.
Yet we can gain much by taking account of the facts of Frost’s life and time when we seek to understand what this dead poet would communicate to us.
When we read Frost carefully, we detect cold undercurrents in his river, upon which the Sun sparkles. And if we ignore his darker depth, we might miss his wisdom entirely. He tells us, at the end of his great poem “Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening,” that life is “Lovely, dark and deep.” Frost looks into the darkness, and yet shows us how to find it lovely.
Teachers tend not to teach Frost’s poem “Design.” They fear the controversy which the poem, carefully read, would bring to surface out of the cold depth. Teachers, with good reason, want to bring to students poems that will inspire them, show them the goodness of life, and send them out of the classroom beaming with rays of sunlight. And they know that to bring up evolution will bring about arguments so packed with emotion and irrationality that a class may devolve into a profound and designless chaos.
But to get to the power of Frost, we must have the courage to look into the deep, and see how it would testify for itself. What would life have to say for itself? And beautiful nature, lovely, dark and deep?
Frost lived from 1874-1963. He lived in a post-Darwinian world. Unlike William Blake, who published his poem “The Tyger” in 1794, Frost does not take the concept for a designer—or God—as a given. Whereas when Blake looks at nature, in the form of the Tyger, Blake gives us no sense of irony when he reflects on the designer. This is not the case with Frost, who is a poet in the modern age.
Modern poetry and literature is full of irony, which marks a profound shift between ages. Often, modern writers will present what was once a common assumption, and which is yet a commonly held though antiquated assumption, and argue that point so to call out its absurdity and make the case for the opposite.
In Frost’s case, he argues, full of sound and irony, for design—a tale told by . . . who would dare frame nature’s fearful symmetry?
We have to remember that Frost writes this poem in the years just following the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, which was decided in 1925, a case which pitted modernists and fundamentalists against one another. By 1927, there were thirteen American states which held anti-evolution laws, preventing that our children would be taught the concept, and so be held in the darkness, lovely, but not deep, their way lit with a candle, not an electric light. (Out, out brief candle!)
But Frost is a poet, a great poet, and as such presents an image of the time, and of the progress of the human mind. Just as Shakespeare recognized the veracity of the Copernican Hypothesis in Hamlet, which is a major topic in itself little discussed, Frost recognizes the veracity of the Darwinian theory and the literal mountains filled with evidence for the case.
It is no accident that the great poets of our time are not writing new versions of the Bible, as they did in King James’ time. The King James Bible is a beautiful work of literature, whose lines are crafted by the greatest poets of an age. But in our modern age, the best one can get in a modern translation of the Bible is a grammatically correct version. Even idiots can tell a tale crafted in grammatically correct sentences. Poetry has long since died in religion and has been reborn in the wilderness, crawling with spiders, and snakes.
I have yet to hear a fundamentalist with a shrewd sense of irony. And I take irony to be one gauge of intelligence—which is lacking in the intelligent design movement. The ironic man can hold two concepts in mind simultaneously, and indicate the correct concept by espousing its contradiction.
Frost is full of irony, and the very title of his poem “Design” is ironic. In the poem, Frost tells us of a simple, small observation he makes of nature on a walk one morning. He shows us the macrocosm by focusing on the microcosm. He spots a “dimpled spider.” This spider, with its smiling dimples, has just killed a moth, which has unwittingly flown into the spider’s designed web—to start the morning right.
If we are to take the argument from design seriously, it follows that all of the horror we find in nature is either right, or our lives are but tales told by an idiot. Yet this dichotomy excludes a possibility, which is that the designer is cruel, and that therefore rightness has no real meaning.
Fundamentalists will not concede that God is cruel, for their god is good. Nor will they concede that God is an idiot, for their god is all-knowing. Then if god is not cruel, and is not an idiot, he must be impotent; for what kind of god, who is good and all-knowing, would allow for such suffering and cruelty, except he be impotent?
This forces them into the contradiction. God cannot be good if he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and he allows such cruelty and suffering. The spider cannot have his moth and eat it too, if God is as theists claim.
The white and innocent spider’s dimples are insidiously ironic; it smiles, itself so small, at the grand systems of theology that he can innocently make tumble and fall–without even thinking. The spider is not intelligent; design is not intelligent. Indeed, it is no design at all, for design would require intelligence.
The poem makes use not only of irony, but of pun, one of which is the word “morning,” which suggests “mourning.” Frost is witnessing a funeral in the morning, as he has too many times in his own life. His ironic tone mocks the “rightness” of this mourning in nature’s darkness. Right and wrong make no sense in nature, but are human concepts born of human designs. The universe is indifferent, if beautiful.
The moth appears to Frost like a rigid piece of satin cloth. The moth is stiff, like a corpse, and coffins are lined with satin. There is no justice in the moth’s death, no design, just evolved systems.
If there is to be any justice in the universe, we must create it. And we cannot create a sound system of justice if we do not account for things as we find them. Frost finds an innocent and dimpled spider eating an innocent moth, and finds therein neither design nor justice.
But we can make a better world, make a just world: we can harness the theory of evolution and minimize disease and suffering. Frost suffered the death of his children who died of natural disease. Nothing in their deaths would be unjust, except there be a god, or there be men who stultify the progress of science and medicine.
If there is a god, then this creation is a horrible injustice, and God is a cruel and sadistic murderer. This creation contains all the elements for a witches’ broth, and indicates a tale told by an idiot. Indeed idiots tell one hell of a tale.
If there is not a god, then nature is just nature. In either case, it is unjust that men would prevent the ideas which promise cures to disease from going forth. Insofar as they deny the concepts which would set us free of illusion and give us real cures, for which they are provided sound evidence, they are unjust and criminal, except they were found of unsound mind.
William Blake published “The Tyger” in 1794, before the birth of Darwin, when nature was a different nature, when nature’s root was not natural, when nature’s root was supernatural. But this poem is a portent, of sorts; it’s a looming. The poem represents a fundamental shift in the imagination of the Western Mind; it represents a willingness to ask certain deadly, murderous questions. This poem is implicit in the conspiracy to leave God a patient etherized upon a table, on life-support, flat-lining, with desperate theologians yet probing his brain in hope of therein finding a subject, upon whom to base their authority, though He were a vegetable.
Western Culture had already felt Earth thrust out from the center of an imagined creation; felt the tremblings of cathedrals as Jesus’ lifeless head bobbed back and forth, his corpse nailed to a cross; felt the foundations of king’s castles cracking as Copernicus’ dangerous idea undermined the very foundation of Western Philosophy, of Western Religion, and of the Western Social Order.
Though the Copernican Revolution moved both the Earth and the Church from the center; though the Copernican Revolution created the space wherein a radically new and political philosophy could be built; though the Copernican Revolution helped Philosophy to re-invent man and center him on Descartes’ subject, the Cogito, the I think; God the Creator still lived, and on His authority, men of Theological Knowledge could make demands of what a man would think, claim, and do.
This fundamental shift in the Western Universe, Nature, and Politics led poets like Blake to re-imagine the Universe and Literature. Indeed he re-imagined religion. He rejected the traditional authorities and wrote his own mythology, which he wove from the stuff of both the Bible and Greek Mythology.
As he sought to understand the World and Nature through his art, he got the rare chance to see a tiger on display in London. Seeing this magnificent beast brought the poet to reflect deeply on the what the tiger meant about Nature and her Creator.
Thus he opens his poem with the deadly question, “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
With this question, we can see a man standing at the end of one age, yet at the beginning of a new age. He is of the older age insofar as he assumes an immortal creator; yet he is of an age yet to come insofar as he is far-seeing and bold enough to ask the questions which conspire to murder God.
There exist those among us those who are yet wont to preserve the theological elements of the former age, who are wont to cherish images of a kind, caring, and loving creator. “God is love,” the cliche goes. Except for the more zealous among them, they are happy to discard images of Hell and horror. More people believe in God than believe in Satan. Most embrace the Lamb, yet reject the Wolf.
But Blake is an artist; he is a poet, a painter, and a printmaker; he knows the importance of shadow. Thus, when he studies this tiger in London, he sees through its stripes shadows and Hell’s flames. Thus, when he writes, “Tyger Tyger, buring bright, / In the forests of the night,” he expresses a natural theology, in which unifies three key elements: God, Satan, and Nature.
Looking at the Tiger, he sees evidence of an awesome creator: God. But this creator is unlike the loving Creator celebrated in the New Testament; he is more like the wrathful God to be feared whom we find in the Old Testament, wherein little is said of Satan. The Creator we find Blake imagining is awesome in the original sense of the word: someone for whom we find profound reverence; but he is also terrible, shadowy, even evil.
Who could create such a fearsome and terrible creature, and not be yet more fearsome? more terrible? But aren’t we taught that the Creator is kind and loving? the one who created the Lamb? who so loves us that he gave his only begotten Son? Looking on the Tiger, Blake asks, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
We see in the Tiger the expression of God and Satan, of the Good and the Terrible; we see in the tiger the expression of God; we see in the tiger evidence of God’s character. But the Tiger also expresses Nature, God’s creation, upon which God smiled and said, “It is good.”
Blood, horror, screams from the jungle: yet He said, “It is good.” This is not Plato’s universe, wherein what God would love, He would love because it is good. In the Tiger, we can see that what is good is good because God loves it. This is the very heart of darkness and horror. Who is it that watches over us?
Through this kind of art and thought, nature becomes that upon which we can meditate to come to know God’s Nature. This is called the Argument from Design. Thus God’s coffin is prepared. The artists are thus implicated in the conspiracy to assassinate the Ruler. Reason played its part; but the Imagination showed the way–and the why.
Born just fifteen years after Blake published “The Tyger,” Charles Darwin was in his youth a devout boy who had aspired to the priesthood. But he was an honest man and valued Truth. He followed his questions on Nature, the Evidence of God, to their conclusion, and gave up his belief in God.
The evidence has only piled on since, and since very few serious intellectuals counter Nietzsche’s tragic pronouncement that God is Dead.
But the Earth still shakes, Christ’s lifeless head still bobs and sways, and many take The Argument from Design seriously. And we should take it seriously. We should follow the evidence from Nature as strictly as did Darwin; but for this we need stout hearts and a taste for irony, of which I will write soon, when I address Frost’s poem “Design.”