Sing Books with Emily, the Blog

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, A Singable Poem by Walt Whitman

Posted on: February 24, 2014

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when i heard the learn'd astonomer loren long
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
Words by Walt Whitman
Music by Various Artists
Pictures by Loren Long

Perusing the shelves in the Tuckahoe Elementary School Library, I spied a picture book painted in rich beautiful colors with a boy on the cover, uncomfortably dressed in a jacket and tie, sitting with a toy rocket ship beside him in an auditorium style row of seats with the title WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER.  Always on the hunt for an  Illustrated Song unknown to me, something in the back of my brain said “poetry,” and then I saw, “words by Walt Whitman.”  JACKPOT!  Well, almost, since who knew if the poem had been set to music.

Reading the book and falling in love with the short, concise, tight story written in free verse, I hoped against hope to find a singable setting.

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WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
From: Leaves of Grass

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 the 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.

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I found two likable musical settings of this poem by Walt Whitman.

Here are links:

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Musical setting of WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER by David Mesler
http://www.davidpaulmesler.com/music-group-36.html
Scroll down the list and find the song where there are two links for listening to the whole setting sung by Barbara Hume.

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A lovely choral arrangement of WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER sung by Kairos-a Consort of Singers.
Musical setting by Edward Lundergan:
http://www.amazon.com/When-Heard-Learnd-Astronomer-Whitman/dp/B00BJZJKQK
You can click here to order the score or buy the CD:
http://www.kairosconsort.org/orderformCD.htm

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WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER on the Poetry Foundation website:
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174747

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A comic book style rendering of the poem, here:
http://io9.com/5973932/walt-whitmans-when-i-heard-the-learnd-astronomer-in-comic-form

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Cliff’s Notes analysis of the poem:
http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/l/leaves-of-grass/summary-and-analysis-calamus/when-i-heard-the-learnd-astronomer

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The poem illustrated online, here:
http://dropseaofulaula.blogspot.com/2012/11/quando-ho-sentito-lastronomo-istruito.html

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Another illustrator’s picture for this poem online, here:
http://ulaulaman.tumblr.com/post/35128133543/carnival-of-space-274-when-i-heard-the-learnd
(I love the title of the picture, “Carnival of Space #274”

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Addendum 4/23/2014

 WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER pairs beautifully with PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON.

Both song say,

“DON’T LOSE THE MAGIC.”

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PUFF AND THE ASTRONOMER: DON’T LOSE THE MAGIC
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/puff-and-the-astronomer-dont-lose-the-magic/

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Addendum, 12/21/2014

finn keep your imagination forever 2014 12 18
KEEP YOUR IMAGINATION FOREVER!
Art by Finn, December 2014

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Addendum, 4/30/2015

An amazing experience with WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER this week.  I sang it for the Ms. Coffman/Ms. Strickland classes of 3rd graders then asked what they thought the song was about.  One of the girls raised her hand and I pointed to her.  She said (paraphrase), “Sometimes you just want to go outside and look up at the starts, but adults make it so complicated that some of the fun gets lost.”  It was such a fluent and coherent answer, so magical and perfect in that moment, I got teary and had to collect myself standing there in front of all those children and their teachers.  With thoughtful and smart kids like her in the world, the future is bright.

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Addendum, 4/23/2016
On Shakespeare’s 400th (and 452nd), an excellent speech for a Whitman poem

Today, 4/23/2016 is Shakespeare’s 452nd birthday and also the 400th anniversary of his death.

Folger Shakespeare Library hosted a wonderful celebration of Shakespeare’s legacy with a program that was broadcast on C-Span II.

Ellen Stofan, NASA Chief Scientist, stood up to give a speech about how Shakespeare inspires her work.  Her speech spoke to me like a longer prose re-telling of Walt Whitman’s poem WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER, which happens to be one of my favorite illustrated poems to sing.

A couple years ago, I was trying (and failing) to find a succinct way explain to a group of very young kids (it might even have been Kindergarten), how I thought PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON and WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER had such a similar message.  It took a 5 or 6 year old to put it so perfectly and simply. Raising her hand a child said, “It means, Don’t lose the magic.”  She was exactly right.  This is what I think Ellen Stofan was also saying in her speech.  Science helps us to understand the universe in provable facts.  But we should also not lose our wonder in the story, art, and magic of it all.  This is what makes the facts MATTER.

I was inspired, so used the forward and rewind features of our TiVo to write out some of the speech which spoke to me, and will remember when I sing the song to kids in classrooms.

C-Span 2
400 Years of Shakespeare at Folger Shakespeare Library
Speech by Ellen Stofan, NASA Chief Scientist
About 19 minutes into the broadcast, about halfway into her speech.

The ability to bring life into art and to make it last for centuries, that is the gift of Shakespeare. I find in the timeless appeal and relevance of Shakespeare, the same thing that I actually love about geology. About the study of our earth, our solar system, our universe. For Billions of years, stars, planets, galaxies are born. They live. They die. We came from stardust and we return to it. For the study of astrophysics or astrobiology is just that, a wonderful, complex story with depth and drama. Just the kind that Shakespeare told so well. I actually get frustrated sometimes with scientists who tell the public the facts and leave out the stories behind the science. Burying people in jargon and method…

Shakespeare knew how to tell the story of the lives of people on the planet. In science, we try to take apart all that is behind the story…but we need to take on this difficult challenge using both sides of our brain using our head and our hearts.  Great science is about so much more than analyzing data.  It’s about dreaming big.  it’s about creativity.  It’s about inspiration and asking the right questions.

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Addendum 8/15/2015

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
Pablo Picasso

More here:
THE DRAGON, THE ASTRONOMER AND THE ARTIST
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/the-dragon-the-astronomer-and-the-artist/

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Addendum, 4/24/2016

Adding to collection of musings on Whitman’s LEARN’D ASTRONOMER, this from friend Charlene James Duguid (a marvelous poet, who does much good!), also fittingly written on my mother’s birthday:
Haiku 2/24/2016
Keep your magic wand
Bright, shiny, maintained for use.
Love is in the air
Thank you, Char, for sharing your poetry.

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Related Posts

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POETRY SINGABLE POETRY IN COMPILATIONS

An list of  singable poems from compilations of poetry for children
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/singable-poetry-a-list-of-poems-that-can-be-sung-from-illustrated-compilations-of-poetry-and-singable-picture-books/

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POETRY, SINGABLE POETRY IN INDIVIDUALLY ILLUSTRATED SINGABLE PICTURE BOOKS
A list of individually illustrated poems that have been set to music and can be sung
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/poems-individually-illustrated-spb/

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PUFF AND THE ASTRONOMER: DON’T LOSE THE MAGIC
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/puff-and-the-astronomer-dont-lose-the-magic/

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ILLUSTRATED SONG/BOOK SETS
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/songbook-sets/

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KEEP YOUR IMAGINATION FOREVER
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/keep-your-imagination-forever-profound-kid-art/

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GALLERY OF KID ART FOR SBWE
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/praise-portraits-from-friends-of-sbwe/

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STARS
Stars, a List of Illustrated Songs that Celebrate Stars
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/stars-a-list-of-illustrated-songs-that-celebrate-stars/

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THE DRAGON, THE ASTRONOMER AND THE ARTIST
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/the-dragon-the-astronomer-and-the-artist/

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SHAKESPEARE
William Shakespeare in Singable Picture Books
https://singbookswithemily.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/shakespeare-in-singable-picture-books/

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