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According to Whitman's biography, he was "early on packed with a love of nature." This is expressed in the poem, where Whitman can't stand the astronomer's lecture and longs to be reunited with nature herself. Lecture halls suffocate him, and he can't bear mathematical jargon for anything as plain and perfect as stars. Around the same moment, Whitman "saw the city's accelerated growth." This must-have affected him in such a way that he now despises anything synonymous with the artificial definition of timeless objects.
Whitman composed this poem in one sentence so that the reader might think it was a short amusing tale. And in some ways it is. It has cause in the first four lines and effect in the second four lines. So the first part is like an introduction and the second one is like a punchline. But the entire story can fit in one sentence if some non-poetic soul tried to retell it. There is also an example of anaphora, which makes the body of a poem look bigger, while the actual story is very short.
Anaphora is a deliberate repetition of the first part of the sentence intended for certain artistic effect. An example of anaphora in the poem can be seen in the first part, where every line starts with the word “when”. Alliteration is a stylistic device which is characterized in a number of words that has the same first sound to be placed one after another. In the poem word combination “mystical moist” is a definite example of alliteration. Another example is “time to time”.
The poet uses anaphora When four times in a row to underline the artificial and boring situation in which he was stuck at the beginning of the poem. This repetition places the reader in a monotonous set of mind typical for scientific lectures. Whitman tries to bore his reader with repetitions and similar terms so the second part of the poem could be more of a relief.
Whitman contraposes his plain speaking contractions leran’d, wander’d and look’d to the dry and formal speech of the astronomer. He obviously mocks this scholar and denies his charts and diagrams with his own down-to-earth verbs. If an astronomer can use all those fancy loud words in his speech, then Whitman can use his old-fashioned verbs to describe astronomer and his own actions.
At first Whitman tries to listen carefully to what the astronomer is telling, but he soon becomes tired and sick of his long speeches. And the fact that Whitman leaves the lecture-room tells us that he does not respect the astronomer and does not care for his reaction at ll. Therefore, there is definitely no respect in this relationship. They obviously look at the same objects under completely different angles. It is a typical misunderstanding between a scientist and a poet.
Audience in the lecture-room is fascinated with astronomer and gives him “much applause”. It is probably for the fact that this astronomer is a learn’d one, therefore all he says must bear an infinite wisdom in itself. It does not really matter what proofs and figures he gives, the reaction of the audience will probably be the same. Society completely trusts astronomer’s words, even though he only supports them with his own diagrams and charts.
Because the astronomer tries to explain such things as sky and stars using charts and diagrams, which are all numbers and facts, Whitman is forced to use the word unaccountable to emphasize his repulsion towards this way of dealing with such poetic things. In this case unaccountable also means that Whitman does not know the specific reason for his sudden feeling of boredom. He also uses this word because the astronomer must support his thoughts with numbers, while Whitman can describe his actions as unaccountable.
Whitman can not bear this nonsense anymore. He is tired and sick of it. But he is not chained to the floor by any conventions. It allows him to rise whenever he pleases. He does not care for any reaction to his actions. In his mind he is already outside and this is the reason why he is gliding out. He already feels the fresh air, although he is not here yet. In the whole big lecture-room , where everyone else is applauding, Whitman is the one and only outcast. Even if somebody else is also tired and bored, Whitman I the only one who actually expresses his feelings in actions. Nobody supports him in his desire for fresh air under the stars. So he wonders off by himself, but it does not seem to bother him.
Mystical is something that can not be directly explained or defined by science. It is something that calls to the deeper corners of the human soul. And this is exactly what this poem is about. The atmosphere to which Whitman yearns is mystical. When he is finally outside, he immediately notices the mystical moist night-air. Mystical in this case means that there is something strange flowing in it. Something that resonates with Whitman’s mood. Moist is the texture of the air. It means that the night is probably a warm one, perhaps even a little bit stuffy. But still, it is much better than musty and rotten air inside the lecture-room.
Perfect silence for Whitman is another substance like mystical moist night-air. After all, Whitman is so tired of astronomer’s nonsense, that an opposite silence stuns him. He understands that no words can explain the true nature of stars, especially told in lecture-halls with no stars above them. Silence on the other hand suffices. This specific silence is perfect for Whitman, and it is perfect for stars. Although silence can never be perfect (except maybe in vacuum), for Whitman it is so much better than what he heard just before that it is almost perfect. He probably entered some perfect state of mind with a perfect silence inside it. There is no such silence anywhere else.
Usually, if there are stars to look at, there is no better place for your eyes. Except maybe for fire and water. But then again, both fire and water make sounds. You can only look up in perfect silence on stars. Sometimes you look at the sky and it seems like a screensaver on your PC, breathing but not alive. And sometimes you look at the sky, and there are many stars, and you can almost dive headlong into that endless cosmic ocean. There are no thoughts here. You become a part of the sky, and the sky becomes a part of the stars.
This poem is more significant today than it ever was. It was not unusual to forget the beauty of nature and escape in big lecture-halls in Whitman’s times. But today it is completely normal for most of the humanity. People forget what it means to look up in perfect silence. People do not get excited by the mystical moist night-air. They are all so chained by conventions and obligations. There is no space for silence. Some people probably do not even find looking at stars to be any fun. If only modern society could sometimes stop listening to all the big mouths and just look in perfect awe at the stars, I think Whitman would be pleased.
A poem mocks and criticizes ways in which society is used to perceive nature. It is unknown what Whitman was doing listening to an astronomer and what he was hoping to hear there. But he got another confirmation that it is better to look at the stars rather than listen to someone talking about them. There are some mundane things that can be discussed, and there are things eternal which are better perceived and not explained. There is also a theme of solitude and inability to stand stuffed closed rooms filled with people and their arrogance. An escape from all that worries you to stars that are always there for you. The importance of being able to appreciate moist night-air. Learned astronomer is not necessary a wise astronomer. Stars are just stars and not some numbers and words.
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