Learning About Nature Through A Transcendentalist Lens In When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer
When discussing key writers and authors born of the American transcendentalist movement in the nineteenth century, seldom is poet Walt Whitman brought into the conversation. It isn’t to say that Whitman himself is not appreciated, his writings are nearly two centuries old yet still speak to readers both discovering them for the first time in a classroom setting or going back to his body of work again through other means. Rather, other writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau seem to occupy the dialogue around transcendentalism almost entirely. This is to be expected, as the Massachusetts based writers are associated very closely with the movement’s origins. However, it should not be overlooked that Whitman was a contemporary to these writers, and furthermore he knew many of them personally. It is therefore not difficult to imagine that some of these transcendentalist ideas and concepts would make their way into Whitman’s poetry, considering how difficult it is to remove oneself entirely from the ideas of one’s peers. Walt Whitman incorporated key transcendentalist ideas and concepts in his poetry through the use of a fundamentally human perspective, an emphasis on intuition, and writing about the desire to break away from conformity.
There can be no doubt that Whitman placed value in the human, specifically individual perspective, as it is made evident in his own writing. This should not be mistaken as a self-centered viewpoint, rather one could interpret it as being precisely the opposite of such. Whitman writes through his own perspective about the perspectives of others, so to speak, seemingly in an attempt to gain a communal, human understanding of his surroundings. Much of Whitman’s work can be viewed as a celebration of the experience of collective American individualism in this way, as oxymoronic of a statement that may sound. Whitman acknowledges that all individual experiences are inherently influenced by the experiences of other individuals, opening his poem “Song of Myself” with the powerful lines “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”. No one person’s perspective can exist in a vacuum outside of the collective experience of humanity, and these lines illustrate that sentiment wonderfully. Around the same time Whitman was writing some of his most acclaimed works, the transcendentalist movement was firmly establishing itself in American culture. One of the main hurdles many of these writers faced in establishing this new voice in said American culture was the absence of a clearly defined American culture in and of itself.
As a (relatively speaking on the world stage) new nation without a homogenous ethnic, religious, or class background, these American writers could not pull from a rich history of Americana as it did not exist yet, at least in the traditional sense. American culture at the time was greatly influenced by that of Europe, devoid of its own wholly unique identity, viewed by some as being desperate to hold the same prestige they perceived said European nations to hold. Instead, transcendentalists embraced this aforementioned lack of a yet well-defined culture and focused on the American individual, likely finding it the most appropriate way to tell the American story. Transcendentalists thought that this (at the time) ill-defined individualism culture “would unify Americans by linking to the nation’s Revolutionary past and revitalizing the future.” (Gac). The transcendentalists primarily used the human perspective to further their ideas surrounding individualism in regards to spirituality and coming to understand one’s place in the universe on their own terms. Whitman’s use of it is marginally less existential, and somewhat scaled back, instead utilizing individualist ideals to celebrate humanity’s (more specifically the United State’s) variety. Ted Genowars puts it excellently when he says that “He [Whitman] welcomed every part of you, accepted every part, and made it part of himself.” (2), describing the way Whitman could incorporate the lives and experiences of others into his own. Whitman welcomed the proverbial American choir and all the unique songs it brought: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,” (“America Singing”).One of the main ideas of transcendentalism is not to necessarily reject empirical knowledge such as math and science, but to instead value the senses and intuition, and utilize those fundamentally human tools at our disposal to shape our worldview.
A transcendentalist may ask: “What value does science have if it does not correlate to what I see and experience before me?”. This, admittedly, from our modern worldview seems like a rather regressive concept, as a similar but certainly not identical thought process can be found in things like the flat-earth movement. However, one should keep in mind this philosophy predates our post-modern reality and that it was born of entirely different context.The transcendentalist writers of the time weren’t attempting to dismantle established science but simply remind their readers of the value in their own everyday observations and thoughts, regardless of empirical validity. The nineteenth century was a time of rapid industrialization and progress for humanity, and as new scientific discoveries were made in quick succession transcendentalist writers desired to take a step back, so to say. These authors didn’t think science was wrong, but rather that human observations and thoughts may hold more immediate and personal value, or stated more elegantly: “once the individual grows aware of the infinite powers conferred to him, he can act up to these powers and do great things.” (RUS 252). By the time Whitman had published “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in 1865, he had already known many key transcendentalist writers for quite awhile, with many of the aforementioned authors singing his praise. Ralph Waldo Emerson had written to Whitman after the first publication of his work Leaves of Grass, a piece that would go on to be revised by Whitman several times over, and “declared the first edition was ‘the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.’” (“Walt Whitman”). The two exchanged letters for some time and can be assumed to have held an interesting dialogue over these communications. Emerson would later visit Whitman at his home in Brooklyn during 1855, and continued to meet and communicate throughout their respective lives. Two other very notable transcendentalist writers: Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, would come to visit Whitman the following year. A humorous anecdote from the occasion: “Alcott described Thoreau and Whitman as each ‘surveying the other curiously, like two beasts, each wondering what the other would do’'(Folsom and Price), an occurrence that is perhaps somewhat indicative of Whitman’s slight outsider status amongst those who would typically be considered transcendentalist.
Thoreau and Whitman could recognize the striking similarities in one another’s philosophies, but they each carried a mutual wariness of the other over the smaller details. Even if these writers did not themselves consider Whitman to be a figure in their movement, they respected, or were at least Transcendentalismintrigued by Whitman’s work. If Whitman had not already held some transcendentalist ideals before meeting with these authors, he would have certainly at the very least picked up on many of the ideas over the course of discussion.This previous contact with influential transcendentalist figures is made evident in Whitman’s short poem about the stars. The piece’s speaker is sitting in on an astronomy lecture, and whether they are overwhelmed by the subject itself or instead overcome with sheer boredom, the speaker removes themself from the scientific dialogue in order to sit outside in solitude. While the astronomer may wield indisputable facts and hard data relating to our night sky, the speaker personally derives more value out of the action of simply marveling at the stars himself and discovering his own personal truth through them, “[looking] up in perfect silence at the stars.” (Whitman, “Learn’d Astronomer”)
This sentiment is a core pillar of transcendentalist ideology, and Whitman manages to incorporate it succinctly into a poem whose message is conveyed clearly. Whitman may not always himself be considered a transcendentalist but one cannot ignore his near textbook use of their ideals. One must also not discount the accessibility of his poems and therefore their ability to rapidly and effectively spread transcendentalist thought, whether that was Whitman’s intention or not. His use of everyday language in his poetry allowed him to hold great reach over such a large audience for the time. Whitman wrote in a way that managed to walk the fine line of speaking to “the common man” without coming off as “the lowest common denominator”, allowing him the opportunity to tap into the widest audience possible. His association with other transcendentalist authors would have surely also spurred some curious readers to continue down the path towards authors more commonly accepted as being a part of the movement.To put it somewhat lightly, transcendentalists “were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity,” (Goodman), ascribing great value to those capable of breaking away from society. This is a sentiment still valued by American society in the modern day, as evidenced by countless films and pieces of media (one could view it as a small part of the overarching ideal of individualism in the United States, another tenant of transcendentalism). Self-discovery in one form or another was a common tool used by transcendentalists, usually incorporating isolation or some kind of journey, whether it be figurative or literal.
Authors “Emerson and Thoreau sought this relation in solitude amidst nature, and in their writing.” (Goodman), and while Whitman did not necessarily pursue such solitude himself, he still understood the importance of self-discovery. In Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”, he masterfully compares the journey of life with the perceived potential of the open road ahead. In life, sometimes one can discover much about themselves by not only not doing what their society desires one to do, but also by straying from what one usually does on their own accord. “Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!” (“Open Road”) Whitman says, for in those moments one can instead focus on the road ahead. On the subject of the road, Whitman’s short poem, “The Runner”, is worthy of a mention in relation to “Song of the Open Road”. While not necessarily about going one’s own way, the poem does convey the message that whichever direction in life one is travelling, they should do so with some level of conviction, an idea shared by his transcendentalist contemporaries. In just four lines, Whitman describes a man on a run so well one may almost forget the poem predates America’s casual jogging culture by over a century. The man is described as “well-train’d” and “lean”, “With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.”(Whitman, “The Runner”), a symbol of making one’s way through life with intent.Walt Whitman is not typically brought up in the discussion surrounding Transcendentalism, though through further reading and examination of his life one could make a very serious case for his inclusion into the conversion. He knew and communicated with many of the contemporary transcendentalist writers of his time, and clearly took inspiration from their work in one form or another. Walt Whitman and transcendentalism as a whole held many similar beliefs and ideas, and although those ideas would frequently manifest themselves in a different manner throughout his work, the core message of the transcendentalist movement is still very present within much of Whitman’s writing upon analysis. Through the use of a human perspective, a focus on intuition and experience, and encouragement placed towards those looking to diverge a bit from the norm on occasion, Walt Whitman managed to incorporate and develop his own unique voice in the world of Transcendentalism without needing to fully envelop himself in the movement.
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