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Transcendentalist Theory in Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"

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  1. Introductio
  2. The patterns of stressed syllables in both halves of the poem
  3. Using the diction of the poem to develop the theme for the reader
  4. Whitman's uses of few rhymes
  5. The poetic elements helping to establish the poem's tone
  6. Conclusion

Walt Whitman, a well-known Transcendentalist, believed that humans and nature share an intimate relationship. His poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" illustrates this communion with the natural world. It contrasts this view with the scientific view of nature that distances humans from the natural world. In this poem, the Transcendentalist's view of the stars is held by the poem's persona, and the strictly scientific view is held by the astronomer. The astronomer spends all of his time with scientific calculations and misses the true beauty of the stars. Only when the persona tires of the astronomer's lecture and goes outside to look at the stars does he learn anything about them. Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" illustrates how form and poetic devices can assist in establishing a poem's theme.

[...] Lines five and six in the second part of the poem also have extremely similar rhythms. Both lines have fourteen syllables with only one variation, the ninth and tenth syllables of each, the accents of which are reversed Yet, rather than having a monotonous effect, like in the first part, this repetition seems only to add to the flow of the lines. The last two lines, on the other hand, have different rhythms, which emphasize the movement away from the mathematical view of nature toward the persona's more spiritual view Also, the first four lines all end in unstressed syllables. [...]


[...] Furthermore, only one rhyme appears in the entire poem, and it is in the very first line, "When I heard the learn'd astronomer" [italics mine] The rhyme is obviously intentional because Whitman has to leave out a syllable in the word "learned" in order to make the two words rhyme. This lone rhyme is yet another way for the poet to express the poem's theme. The rhyming of "heard" and "learn'd" in the line introducing the astronomer makes him appear almost humorous and plays on the fact that he is actually clueless about the true significance of the stars Although Whitman uses few rhymes in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," he employs other patterns of sound, such as alliteration and assonance to create a rhythmic and melodic effect. [...]

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