Sunday Pages: "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"

A poem by Walt Whitman

Dear Reader,

Winter is coming. No, seriously: it begins tomorrow—although here in New York, Jack Frost got a little head start, as you can see in the photo I took early Thursday morning from the window of my office.

Today is something even more important than the pesky solstice, which after all happens yearly. Today, my friends, marks the one-year anniversary of the creation of the United States Space Force, Donald John Trump’s greatest—and only—achievement. Friday, we found out that Space Force forces will be known as—wait for it—GUARDIANS. As the pandemic claimed another 3,000 American lives, Mike Pence, titular head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, made time in his oh-so-busy schedule to make this super urgent announcement:

Rejected names included X-Men, Star Troopers, Galaxy Questers, Watchmen, Trekkers, Mandalorians, Moonrakers, Mars Attackers, Jedi Knights, Rising Signs, and MFM/WFV, which stands for “Men from Mars, Women from Venus.”

To keep with the space theme for “Sunday Pages,” I thought I would share this poem by Walt Whitman:

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.

There are a few ways to interpret the poem. The literal way is: “This otherwise smart guy is too lazy to do math.” The MAGA way is something like: “Science is dumb, what can it teach us about anything, fuck Fauci.” Neither of these are particularly compelling readings.

What Whitman is actually describing here is ineffability. While we can study the stars, and bask in astonishing knowledge about our vast and seemingly-boundless universe—as Paul Simon put it, “The way we look to a distant constellation that’s dying in the corner of the sky / These are the days of miracle and wonder, and don’t cry”—there are some things that will always, by their nature, elude scientific explanation: Wonder (as Simon said). Art. Love. Erotic desire. Humor. Religious ecstasy. Goodness. Compassion. Patriotism. Honor. And, yes, Justice.

Thirty-one days.

Share