12 July 2011

When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer

I've been watching the third season of the excellent AMC drama Breaking Bad and was moved by Gale's recitation of this poem while he and Walt were bonding in the new meth lab. Both are men of science and believe that "chemistry is magic." I've always thought that the poem means that man cannot control nature, that each being perfects him- or herself through communion with nature, and that the rigidity and precision of science can suck the beauty right out of the natural world.

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
Walt Whitman (1864)

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.

Whitman wrote this poem in 1864. It was published in the 1881-82 edition of Leaves of Grass.

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