English 10 (Period 6)
7 March 2016
The Ironic Wisdom Behind “Perfect Silence” in Walt Whitman’s When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
When my mom found out she was pregnant with me, she had no idea what the hell she was doing. She was 19, lost, and I was conceived a month after she met my dad. One night, after being stuck in her mind for days, she found a dilapidated and cold, yet strangely welcoming bench under a thriving willow tree. It was here that she cried, and begged for an answer until she resolved one of the biggest decisions of her life. There’s only three choices for a woman to make in this situation: abortion, adoption, or keeping the child. She was torn between her integrity and her aspiration, and had no one who understood the choice she was being faced with. That night, she turned to the moon.
It’s when I turn to her with my own challenges that my mom retells what’s become not only her, but our, story. Every time, unfalteringly, my mom tells me that the best advice she could ever give me is to “offer up your heart, and just ask to be lead.” She asked her moon for a sign on a December night, and she swears even now that a voice told her to “love this child as much as I have loved you.” I owe this voice everything.
I’ve never been a religious person, but I have to believe that there’s something bigger than me out there somewhere. I don’t know who or what, but I don’t need to. Some things are better left unexplained.
In Walt Whitman’s poem, When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, a man is overwhelmed by the “charts” (3) and “diagrams” (3) of intense intellect. Throughout my years in school, I’ve lost count of the numerous times teachers and adults have told me there is always more to learn. Society strives to be great, and we do this by educating and researching every aspect of knowledge we’re aware of. Whitman’s poem brings up the ironic point that sometimes learning more means not trying to learn at all. While the astronomer does earn much “applause” (4), there’s something to say for the man who can walk away from the “proofs” (2) and “figures” (2) to take the stars as they are: untouched. The astronomer can’t do stars justice by representing them in “columns” (2), and the speaker of Whitman’s poem knows this. Although the astronomer has gained many people’s respect throughout his life, he won’t have the same apprehension of our universe as the person who is fulfilled “look[ing] up in perfect silence at the stars” (8).
There is also something, however, to be said for the speaker’s efforts to learn astronomy in the environment of the astronomer. I, too, have spent more than enough time trying to analyze and explain the world through science, philosophy, and psychology. Like the “learn’d astronomer” (1) I am drawn to facts, and it’s hard for me to accept that the metaphorical stars in our life are the way they are simply because. I yearn for complex answers, and I too eventually become “tired and sick” (5).
It’s in these moments that I remember we don’t need to “add, divide, and measure” (3) everything we encounter. I, like my mom, have found solace in sitting under the night sky waiting for signs. I’ve found for myself that the voice my mom heard could be explained through a scientist’s logic, but it could also be accepted by the common person. We don’t need to be scholars or intellectuals, we don’t need to memorize formulas, it won’t comfort us in heartbreak or highlight our exuberance. Slowing down and appreciating the small things in this world. Taking each other and our surroundings as they are without questioning every detail. These are the kind of ideals that will benefit us.