When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

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.


This poem is in the public domain

This poem was written in 1865 by the American poet Walt Whitman, and as a university lecturer I find that it challenges me. The language that is used in this poem is incredibly eloquent, but it is also merciless. Whitman is having absolutely none of it as the astronomer in questions stands in his pulpit and preaches at his audience about the mysteries of the Universe and how to measure them. Whitman is not at all impressed by the expert’s language, his knowledge, or his methods of communicating. So much so that he takes it upon himself to leave the classroom and teach himself. This poem could also be read as an attack on science itself, on the brashness of the discipline in trying to describe the indescribable. However, as a lecturer I choose to focus on the method of delivery rather than the subject itself, and find it to be a stark reminder that no matter how interesting or fascinating the topic, a lack of empathy for the audience can result in boredom, disinterest and disengagement.  And yet, it also serves as a reminder of what can be achieved in the hands of a skilled teacher…


Not impressed; Walt Whitman (Photo Credit: Mathew Brady [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

My career as a scientist began under the tutelage of the two exceptional A-level Physics teachers that I had at St. Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate. Both Mr Cross and Mr Crane managed to achieve what the lecturer in Whitman’s piece failed so spectacularly to accomplish: they brought the mysteries of physics (in particular that of space time, relativity and black holes) into the classroom. Any question that we had they could provide an informed and accessible answer for, and I have incredibly fond memories of them discussing the properties of quarks using nothing more than a blackboard and three pieces of coloured chalk. Those lessons were an absolute blessing to me, and it is no overstatement to say that they helped to shape the whole of my academic career to date. Now that I am a teacher myself, I strive to replicate those A-level Physics classes, and hope that I succeed in bringing the magic of the night sky into my lecture-room.

By Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Does this make you think of any of the lectures that you have attended? Does it make you think of any of the lectures that you have given?


3 thoughts on “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

  1. Thanks Sam! What I love today is the juxtaposition of THAT poem with your own positive experiences of engaging and meaningful science teaching.
    In your discomfort perhaps you are hinting that it is too easy to critique this sort of teaching (although it is poor and it does turn people off)?
    Could Whitman write a poem that paints a picture of successful teaching – and would that not be harder – but more useful – more intriguing?
    Of course, Whitman is a poet – as such – it is more natural for him, perhaps, to invite us to be with the skies and learn… Just as last week’s poem invited us to be with the poem – and not analyse it to death?


    • Thank you for your really insightful comment. I think that you are absolutely correct and that you raise an important point: it is far easier to criticise than it is to praise or constructively critique!

      I would love to read a poem that celebrates a form of teaching or remembers a teacher fondly. Can you think of any examples perhaps?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    It’s that time again in the week when I invite you to share in #poetryfeedhe and it’s lunch time poem.
    As so many of these poems are on the topic of teaching and learning – why not pull up a chair, grab a bite to eat and drink…
    And have a few moments with this week’s poem?
    All the best,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s