When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman
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.
A friend of mine and I had a wonderful discussion about magic and perfection the other day. It got me thinking about what it means to appreciate the magic something. For her it was about the pure and the simple. On a wonderful little gift she gave me, the tag on the gift had the line from the following Walt Whitman poem above “from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars”. When I looked up the entire poem and read the words (as I had never read it before) I found it funny how much the meaning of the poem had to do with what I was sorting through in my mind (by the way this friend was a student in my Introduction to Earth Science class and wonder if there isn’t more of a message in there for me lol). The words from the poem she shared with me are good advice. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could no longer follow such advice. Have I lost something? Have I lost the appreciation for magic? Am I unable to enjoy things in perfect silence? My mind singular on the beauty I behold? Not too long ago another blogger I follow who writes poetry that I always connect with wrote a poem about missing when life was simple called Old Happy Stars. I do long for that. I think we all do to a certain degree. I also know that you can’t go back and making things feel so simple an amazing is very hard for me.
This discussion about magic came up because we were discussing Santa Claus. She was a firm believer in Santa Claus until the 4th grade, and is raising her daughter, like many people, to see all the magic that is Santa Claus. I am someone who never once believed in Santa Claus, and thus even I were to want to give my son Santa Claus at Christmas there would be no level where I could really fake it. I have no memories of any magic associated with Santa. She said it’s important for children to have those magical things. And I have to say I agree with her. After the conversation I started to ponder what the magic was in my childhood. I remember looking at lightning in thunderstorms and feel that it was absolutely magical. Thunder seemed magical, the smell of rain seemed magical. For me there was a lot of magic in the sky and I am certain I had some moments of perfect silence, even if it wasn’t actually silent. I think sometimes in such moments we feel perfect silence because we are in perfect solitude, shutting out the rest of the world while we are singular in our focus. When I came home I started watching my son and how amazed he is by things, whether it’s trains or the planes up in the sky. It seems to me that even they begin to learn what these things are and what their purpose might be, they have no idea how they work. Something that seems to moving but has no muscles, no animal-like locomotion, no feathers for flying must seem like absolute magic. If I wasn’t forming a lot of long term memories, and I saw this metal object flying in the sky I would be pointing up every single time too in excitement. I think, at least I hope, kids always see things as magical, even if you don’t give them Santa. For them, every object that they’ve dropped or thrown up in the air comes down. That plane up in the sky has to be some pretty crazy stuff to them, and what other choice do they have but to take it on faith that it will not fall down from the sky.
That thought made me happy, but I started to get a little bit sad, because I am not sure that I could just gaze at the stars in perfect silence. Because in that poem I am the Learn’d Astronomer, and if I was a student in that class I would be enthralled by the equations, the figures, and the charts. When I look at the stars I can’t help but think what the humidity might be that is impacting their twinkle. I would think about how far away those stars are, and how trigonometry gives us a way of telling how far away they are through stellar parallax. I would think about how the stars are like a portal back in time, knowing that I am seeing what a star looked like 10,000 years ago, and how at that time human civilization was just dawning. If you can’t tell already, it’s hard to quiet my mind. I look at everything like that. Sometimes I am wondering and questioning, maybe coming up with some hypothesis to explain what I’m seeing. Perhaps I would make an analogy. Or perhaps I would simply think about all the forces at work, or the history of the object, the big picture, the detailed picture, related pictures. Sometimes I contemplate all the connections that one thing has to others. All that comes to me in a flood and I feel overwhelmed by how amazing this universe is. And then I started to smile, because maybe it’s not magic, but it’s still amazing. It’s still beautiful. I t still leaves me in awe and wonder even if I know exactly how it works and think about every variable in the equation. And maybe for every person that walks out on the Learn’d Astronomer and enjoys that perfect silence at the stars, there is a student who stays and listens and just takes it all in and the amount of seemingly simultaneous thoughts grow like the branches of a tree. And I’m not making a comment about level of intelligence because my friend is extremely intelligent and I feel like she experiences those moments of perfect silence frequently, perhaps even at will when she needs to. But maybe it’s just really a different way of approaching the same beauty in life. There are truly times when I wish I could experience such moments that Whitman describes, and so I envy her. But maybe the beauty I see is just as enviable.
So as I began to smile I thought back to just that morning and how when I drove in to work just sliver of the crescent moon was visible as the moon waned. Often, at about an hour before sunrise, there is enough reflection of the Earth back to the moon and you can see the rest of the lunar sphere, even though it’s featureless. Then I thought in my mind about the geometry of all 3 objects and had this model in my head. And I decided to write a poem. The one I just posted a few days ago. And like magic I took all those thoughts and imagined almost like a love affair between the Earth and the moon. So even if I stare at the moon and explain its beauty while also appreciating it, such thoughts can still inspire, still create, and still bring me a great deal of wonder that I think can be considered a type of magic. And maybe that Learn’d Astronomer is just as lost in his world of equations and charts as the star gazer is lost in his moment of perfect silence. Maybe it’s not so important how you experience magic in the world, but that you do experience it and never lose that ability to get lost in wonder and awe at beauty.