A Symbiotic Relationship
Propelling subjects into action, inciting inanimate objects into movement; verbs meet and surpass these functions. Without verbs a sentence would fail to be such, a clause would fall in rank down to a phrase or a simple phrase. There are three, generalized categories of verbs that pertain to “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman: action verbs, linking verbs, and helping verbs. Action verbs push the subject of the clause or sentence into motion, linking verbs establish a state of being, and helping verbs add onto both action and linking verbs to increase the detail of those verbs. A shift within the poem separates the text and corresponding verbs into halves; the shift falls at the beginning of the fifth ling after four succeeding clauses, where “when” starts each. The first half includes simple action verbs and a few helping verbs in addition to some verbs, the second half only contains linking and actions verbs, no helping verbs. Through the contrasting structure and content between the two halves, the verbs reveal that with science and math humans are able to create a relationship with nature so they can understand certain aspects of the mysteries behind it and not remain ignorant of the known workings of the world.
This split in the poem creates two distinct parts where the main verb implies one of the five senses and the subtleties within the text infer another. The first half explicitly states that the speaker “heard the learn’d astronomer” (1); the remainder of the half revolves around the events of the astronomer’s lecture. Amiss the lecture the speaker “was shown the charts and diagrams” (3) along with other mathematical and scientific tools. The images of “the proofs, the figures” (2) are ambiguous, vague. These tools are visual representation of mathematical ideas, but the speaker does not provide direct descriptions of what concepts the diagrams denote. The second half, in a similar yet opposite construction, has a focus on the sight of certain visuals and the emergence of sound. There is a direct statement that the speaker “look’d…at the stars” (8); although there is no specific details that provide to the imagery, the concept of a star has a concrete sight. Within the words of the second half, figurative elements illuminate sound. Assonance comes with the speaker’s movements as he/she is “rising and gliding out” (6), initial alliteration describes the “mystical, moist night-air” (7).
These sound devices add the effect of sound, yet no actual sound emits from the outside environment. In “perfect silence” (8) that speaker glances at the stars; throughout the speaker’s wanderings, no physical sound arises from his/her person. The second half clearly states that there is an absence of sound; the first half has no mention of the speaker’s contribution to the sound in the lecture. Here another inference emerges; for the speaker to hear the words from the lecture, he must remain silent. The clues for the speaker’s alleged silence appear within the verbs of the poem. The other verbs like “were ranged” (2) and “was shown” (3) are passive constructions of the verbs; those actions aren’t performed by the speaker, they’re done by the astronomer. The astronomer arranges “the proofs, the figures” (2), he displays “the charts and the diagrams” (3). As for the other verbs, the speaker “heard the…astronomer” (1), the speaker listens to the lecture. He/she doesn’t admit to interrupting the astronomer or “zoning out” during the lecture. Each half mirrors the other; the first expresses no utterance of sound while the second deliberately includes the word “silence”.
The contrasts within the halves aren’t limited to just the narrow view of the words and their effect, they appear in the setting of each half. At the beginning the speaker sits inside a lecture-room learning from an astronomer; after “much applause in the lecture-room” (4), the speaker “wander’d out” (6). The career description of an astronomer, found on an online dictionary, is a person who studies celestial objects, space, and the physical universe as a whole. The astronomer lectures on some topic of his career description, some phenomenon in the natural world. Talks of stars and other celestial objects occupy a man-made structure, charts and figures rest on humanity’s creations. For the astronomer to teach the complex observations behind nature he needs these synthetic technologies to watch and analyze space. As for the second half, the reversal is true; the astronomer needs science and math, human establishments, in order to analyze appearances in nature.
This symbiotic relationship reflects the parallels and contrasts within the poem as a whole. All the elements of the poem work together at different levels to balance out the various aspects of each part. The first half of the poem has lengthy lines that list off different types of subtle images; there are few explicit places where words plainly state a sound. In opposition, the second half has precise imagery and concise lines; there are multiple types of slight sound elements within the words. The reversal of the amount of sights and sounds reveals the complexity behind everything in the poem, how one half needs the other to prevent one sense from overpowering another. Alone the first half is a lopsided construction where the inexplicit overpowers the direct.
That very same principle applies to man and nature; if one dominates the other then they both lose the rewards of forming a relationship. If man only consumes the environment, they demolish that chance to embrace the information derived from nature; they ruin the opportunity to uncover certain mysteries within the natural world. Astronomy relies on the preservation of the universe. Without space the astronomer can’t unlock the mysteries of the stars and other celestial objects.
When the speaker “heard the…astronomer” (1), that link is clearly defined. Since the speaker listened to the lecture from an educated astronomer and learned about some of the universal discoveries. The astronomer, with his lecture, grants the speaker some insight into space; the speaker needed that lecture to understand the multiple layers behind the stars. Without that lecture, the stars would remain just stars. Those secrets of the universe would remain unknown; mysteries would stay hidden if people never to uncover and learn.
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