I remember the first time I read Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in college. The poem plucked some invisible strings within my soul. I discovered that the right words in the right order changed things. They gave utterance to stones we carried in our hearts.
Solomon sounded similar thoughts in Proverbs, predating Whitman by millennia when he wrote, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Pr 25:11a, ESV).
The English course was one of those introductory survey courses that non-literary type students dread–a multi-month burden to endure with as scant effort as possible and still pass. But when the instructor assigned the poem, and we later reread it in class, it opened to me musical language. Whitman conducted with a baton:
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.
As the teacher read aloud most students seemed as moved as molasses. But I looked at the teacher and saw the flame in his eyes, too, that drew light from Whiman’s light. This poem named the unnameable; it expressed how mystery unfurls into a soul. Mystery found relief in language.
Decades later I still go back to that poem, and picture the speaker in the poem trying to listen to pablum. He tried to act the part of dutiful acolyte. Perhaps he envied those who were satisfied with the trivial. But instead, he heard chords sound from outside him, and yet to him, as from the divine conductor. And then he discovered himself looking up at the firmament, almost daring to speak.