In his The Enlightenment in America, historian Henry May points out one of the big problems of digging through the past in a desire to re-create it honestly: the problem of comprehensiveness when certain voices and realities simply aren’t available parts of the puzzle. He states,
It is not true, as some proponents of democratic history rather surprisingly seem to imply, that ordinary people do not have general ideas. It is true, however, that it is hard for the historian to recover the general ideas of people who did not write them down. (1976, xviii)
This problem of “what is not written down” covers all aspects of re-creational historicism, as any archive is marked just as much by what it excludes as what it includes. And that exclusion often isn’t an act of decision-making or tyranny or even of what people never wrote down in the first place: it’s a necessary result of the fact that the past has a half-life, and its atomic truth is perpetually in a state of breakdown. Just like your grocery shopping list of three months ago probably (hopefully?) won’t make it to your great grandchildren, history is full of the missing landmarks that would assist a thinker in building from the ground up a complete picture of the goings-on of the past. Even Whitman himself—a great collector of notes and artifacts, a veritable pack rat of his own archival history who may have held onto that grocery list for longer than most—remarked in 1874, fearing that his death was near, that he had “twice hurriedly destroyed a large mass of letters and MSS. to be ready for what might happen” (Kaplan 1980, 19). And at that point he still had nearly 20 years left to live, and plenty of time to destroy even more history; one visitor noted in 1888 that Whitman “had been burning some old manuscripts today” (Kaplan 1980, 19), making it a fascinating question of guesswork regarding what exactly Whitman found suitable for destruction. Was it because they were artistically not up to his standards or because they would “reveal” something about himself that he did not wish posterity to know?
Yet, sometimes we do have “enough” pieces of the puzzle to tell what picture it’s meant to reveal, even if we are still forced to see the folding table beneath that puzzle in the spots where pieces have been misplaced or were never manufactured in the first place. We also have access to a variety of archives for our attempts to generate interpretive possibility and to unearth a past reality for our current purposes of understanding. We have not only our archive of Whitman’s writing and life, and our archive of the lyceum, and even our archive of Vermeer and the issues of relevance it throws into stark relief, but the archive that embodies our knowledge of scientific achievement in the nineteenth century. Understanding that latter archive is essential for having a decent idea of what the astronomer was discussing, and it’s also interesting when considering Whitman’s own relationship to science. As we have seen, the poem is easy to read as a rejection of science, with the speaker having grown ill at the lecture and leaving its mathematical jargon behind so as to enjoy the fruits of an unscientific first-person enjoyment of the natural beauty of the stars themselves, as unadorned by the unromantic intellectualizing represented by the astronomer. But is the scientist actually unduly intellectualizing, and was Whitman likely to write a poem that so vilifies a scientist? A little digging in the archive—despite its limitations—can help us find out.
To start, the history of astronomy is particularly interesting here, because our interpretation of the astronomer’s talk requires a little understanding of what, indeed, he may have been talking about. Astronomy by the time of Whitman had become a rigorous science, as we saw even by the time of Vermeer that “De Astronoom” was in deep reflection not just in staring at the sky but also in the interior labor of mathematically studying the results of his measurements of the sky. And it’s true that astronomy as a field had been bursting with intrigue in the 80-plus years prior to the publishing of Whitman’s poem; for example, 1781 saw the discovery of Uranus by Sir William Herschel, Astronomer Royal to George III. This discovery was profound in that it was the first new planet found since Ptolemy roved the ancient skies, thus ending a span of more than 1500 years in which the heavens had a fixed number of planets. Symbolically, the new addition to the solar system was named after “Urania,” the goddess of astronomy, and “the new planet was seen to mark a rebirth [of] her science” (Holmes 2010, 97). Keats, for one, was so taken by this event that he memorialized it in his 1816 “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” writing
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken (7–10),
For Keats, the discovery of a new planet symbolized the thrill not only of new knowledge but also the thrill that such new knowledge was even possible. The discovery of Uranus by Herschel was done through a scanning of the sky with a telescope exceptionally high-powered for its day, yet such a thorough and time-exhaustive method of searching the heavens would seem deranged and heavy with chance compared to the methods in use by 1846, a scant 65 years later, when Neptune was discovered.
Neptune, unlike Uranus, was discovered not by incrementally and painstakingly scrolling a telescope across the enormous expanses of the sky’s nightly star-speckled darkness, but by the work of a mathematician sitting at tables with paper and pencil. Urbain Le Verrier used mathematics to predict the existence of a major planet before that major planet was ever actually officially observed as a planet, and its subsequent observation by Johann Gottfried Galle on September 23, 1846 was a spectacular confirmation of Newton’s theories on gravitation, while also ushering in a new era of mathematical hegemony as a means of understanding the cosmos. French astronomer François Arago declared that Le Verrier had discovered a planet “with the point of his pen” (Wikipedia, n.d.), and it’s in this context that the astronomer in our poem was using “charts and diagrams” to display astronomical discoveries, rather than merely just dragging his audience outside to “look up” at the stars. In this setting, it wouldn’t be a stretch to view the poem’s speaker as an anti-academic curmudgeon who views these new methods as having siphoned off the romance of the enterprise of engaging nature, distilling away its beauty in a trade for the soulless expedience of hunch-backed mathematical inquiry. Despite this—and this is a key point—the astronomer is an astronomer, and it’s unlikely that he himself doesn’t appreciate a good look at the stars above. In fact, the astronomer has likely done just that for hours and hours more than the audience member who leaves the lecture hall.
For his part, Whitman was an unabashed fan of science, and was prone to latch onto the scientific innovations of his day, whether they in our twenty-first century world be viewed as valid (spectroscopy) or dubious (phrenology). In 1855 he’d drawn connections between the scientific enterprise and the poetic one, saying, “Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet but always his encouragement and support” (Matthiessen 1941, 614), thus making clear that he didn’t believe science was a danger to the art of poetry, but a catalyst. As we’ve seen, Whitman himself often sought to be a member of the audience of great speakers and thinkers, even figures who have come to be viewed as controversial, such as Darwin-denier Louis Agassiz (Dugdale 1936, 128). He also in his own journals mentioned that, with the study of astronomy in particular, “no nation can be degraded nor any race of learned persons remain without grand thoughts and poems” (Whitman 1902, 105). There can be no refuting Whitman’s own personal interest in astronomy’s findings, nor his love for the stars themselves, as evidenced also by Clarence Dugdale’s early assaying that “the number of Whitman’s allusions to astronomy or to astronomical bodies and phenomena is unusually large (there being no less than two hundred in Leaves of Grass alone)” (1936, 125). Indeed, Whitman was so invested in the sciences that he even incorporated his own scientific learning directly into his poetry, sometimes in a nearly plagiaristic manner. One notable example discussed at length only recently is his co-opting of text from “natural scientist” Maximilian Schele de Vere, whose own book Stray Leaves from the Book of Nature was published almost concurrently with the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s poem “The World Below the Brine” cribs heavily from Schele de Vere, and serves as textual and historical proof of Whitman’s love for science, rather than his disdain for it (Schöberlein 2013, 65). All of this, if applied to an interpretation of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” would seem to dispel the notion that the poem is scathingly anti-science.
As an adjunct to Whitman’s scientific inquiry, the poet, lacking college or a prestigious high-class education, was a largely self-educated auto-didact who compiled vast, sprawling, and maniacal notebooks of facts he hoped to attain and inquiries he desired to pursue, all in an era long before Wikipedia made the technological off-boarding of practically limitless knowledge possible. His cluttered filing systems, while fruitful and perversely addictive to scholars, are hardly a testament to pedantic organization. Disorganization notwithstanding, is it possible that Whitman’s experience as an auto-didact could make him more willing to trust his own gazing upon the night sky than to take someone else’s word for it? Despite the ample evidence of Whitman’s thirst to receive awareness wherever he could find it, another twist of biography for the purpose of creating new layers of interpretive possibility—this time regarding Whitman’s education—makes it possible to approach the speaker’s experience with the astronomer as a criticism of educational class and conformity. The astronomer must, by his esteemed stature, be a man of privilege, and the audience, presumably also academically privileged—even in the “democratic” forum of the lyceum—is united in their fandom. Having witnessed this praising of the man at the top of the academic intellectual hierarchy, our narrator becomes incapable of conspiring to perpetuate this inequity, and therefore disembarks due to his awareness of “nature’s” more-valid means of accumulating truth that is not exclusive to the educationally privileged. Here the departure is akin to the “jealousy” argument we discussed in the previous section, only here our speaker departs because of his “principles,” and in this way the poem becomes a marginal voice’s comment on the exclusionary hierarchies of the educated. A century later, W.H. Auden, in his “The Poet & the City,” commented on the awkwardness of being a poet in a scientific arena, saying, “When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes” (1963, 81). Here we see the speaker deciding not to subject himself to such a feeling.
It’s important now to pause for a moment, and regard with a critical eye the types of connections we’re investigating between history and our understanding of a text. For example, while Whitman’s avowed and recurrent declarations of appreciation for science would seem to be the firm basis for interpretive argument, the paragraph we just read—about his education and the poem being a commentary on academic privilege—may be the type of “reach” we want to regard with caution, as it shows the tightrope walk required when making arguments, as well as the risk of abusing the archive. Can we really believe such a thing—that the speaker, as an avatar of Whitman, leaves the lecture hall due to class and educational inequity? And can we believe that a statement by Auden in the 1960s has any bearing of relevance on the poem or the poet who wrote it, especially when we know that “science” was a less specialized and more widely accessible field in the nineteenth century than it was in the twentieth? While Leo Marx argues in The Machine in the Garden that technologies such as the locomotive—“associated with fire, smoke, speed, iron, and noise...appears in the woods, suddenly shattering the harmony of the green hollow” ( 2000, 27)—symbolizes nineteenth-century paranoia about the onrushing dominion of science and all it meant for the relationship between human beings and nature, Whitman wasn’t so anxious. Indeed, he enthusiastically told the Brooklyn Art Union in 1851 that the United States had become a nation “of whom the steam engine is no bad symbol” (from “Art and Artists” [Holloway 1921, 241]). In “Song of Myself” he declares, “Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!” A point of emphasis here is that contradictory selections of archival data—“Whitman loves science!”; “Whitman wasn’t educated so he must dislike the educated!”—demonstrate the dangers of overfitting particulars of the archive to our interpretations. Because we can choose what we use as evidence, it’s easy to get ourselves in trouble by cherry-picking what evidence serves us at any given time.
Another challenging argument that walks this tightrope links Whitman’s love of science and the history of mid-century astronomy, with an interpretation centered on the penultimate line of the poem. The “from time to time” that we witness in the closing “and from time to time / Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars” is usually read for its idiomatic meaning, an idiom we studied for its popularity in Chapter One. That idiomatic meaning, sensibly applied to the poem, suggests that the poem’s speaker looks up at the stars, then lets some time pass, then looks up at the stars again. There is an incidental quality to this looking, an almost haphazard glancing that a formalist reading would have no problem justifying. This reading can be suggestive of a lack of investment on the part of the speaker, as he doesn’t stop to stare at the stars or study them, but merely observes them in passing and dispassionately, the casualness in direct juxtaposition to the rigor and intensity of the astronomer’s mathematics. In Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, though, Ed Folsom argues fascinatingly that “from time to time” is nota mere deployment of slapdash cliché, but rather a statement of deep awareness of contemporary science by Walt Whitman: “The phrase signals one of the newly formulated concepts that the astronomer would have explained in his lecture: that when we look at the stars, we are not only looking across vast distances of space, but vast distances of time” (LeMaster and Kummings 1998, 769). Though we can take exception with the certainty of the word “would,” it’s definitely possible that the astronomer covered this concept, and the possibility that he did, and that the speaker is engaging the stars in this way at the end of the poem, adds a curious new way to view the speaker’s absorption of the astronomer’s lesson. Folsom’s reading, accordingly, suggests that the speaker hasn’t wholly discarded the lessons the astronomer gave, but learned them—“he does not forget the lessons he learned in the lecture room” (LeMaster and Kummings 1998, 769), Folsom says—and then applied those lessons on his own walk in the “mystical moist night-air.”
Whether this reading of “from time to time” is convincing or not is up for debate, and casts a light once again on the question of evidence and, also, what the archive does or does not provide for us. We don’t have a document in the archive in which Whitman states directly that he was thinking about how the stars are different distances from us, and that those different distances correspond to different times, and that those different times make him think differently about or add an ironic spin to the phrase “from time to time.” That data simply doesn’t exist, and without it we need to make guesses and assumptions and do our best to connect dots even where those dots are faded or invisible or were never dots in the first place. Those decisions about which guesses and assumptions to endorse and which to discard requires the intermediator that is the critic, just as Ed Folsom was the critic for the claim about that novel interpretation of “from time to time.” This bringing in of a critic to reshape how we view the history of a person, the culture around him, and the archive is an example of the necessary role of the decision maker in determining what we consider to hold historical relevance, and in providing new and exceptional ways of thinking about the history we do have. It also makes for a convenient segue into a study of the role of criticism in shaping our vision of the past and the poems in it.
Nick Courtright, the Executive Editor of Atmosphere Press, is the author of the forthcoming The Forgotten World (2021, Gold Wake), as well as the collections Let There Be Light and Punchline. His work has appeared in The Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, and The Southern Review, among dozens of others. Find him at atmospherepress.com, nickcourtright.com, and watching birds on his porch in Austin, Texas.