New Criticism and the Poem “When I Heard a Learn’d Astronomer”
During the early half of the 20th century, a new style of criticism emerged allowing literary texts to be examined as “independent and complete works of art” as defined by Linda Pavlovski (1). It is evident that literary works were and still are interpreted with aid from historical, biological, and even cultural perspectives but New Criticism advocates each work of literary can stand with its own importance unaided. Critic, poet, and author of the book titled The New Criticism, John Crow Ransom, established New Criticism as the term which is used today. The majority of critics who use New Criticism use it to analyze and defend poetry from its common interpretations. A poem that can be analyzed by New Criticism is “When I Heard a Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman. The eight-lined poem recounts a day in class and a revelatory encounter with nature. Sticking to Pavlovski’s definition of New Criticism and by focusing on a close reading of the technicalities such as structure, paradoxes, and word choice the message is clear to read.
Jason Wilson claims “the structure of a story can relate its author and the ideological system” of the story itself (33). Evaluating the structure of “When I Heard a Learn’d Astronomer” this is demonstrated. The poem can be broken down into two sections splitting directly down the middle; the first four lines and the last four lines. These sections can be categorized just as Linda Wagner-Martin labeled two sections of the poem “Laying the Dust.” She called the first section a “simple happening” while the latter is a result of the happening being called “from this experience, the poet concludes” (45). To begin the speaker of the poem describes the instruction he is receiving from the “learn’d astronomer” simply and with minimal interest. The word “When” introducing the first line of every line in the first section unifies the idea...