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A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman
This ten line poem, comprised of two 5 line stanzas, lacks both a rhyme scheme and a consistent beat.
The poem is somewhat unusual in that it is built on a metaphor comparing a spider to the Speaker’s own soul. The metaphor is unusual in my opinion because spiders are not typically the source of a positive comparison (they are more often used a metaphor for something fearful or deceptive.)
Let’s look at the first stanza:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
A major focus of the first stanza is that the spider is alone. The theme is clarified through its noiseless environment and the “vacant vast surrounding” it occupies. The other focus is on the character of the spider in that setting. The spider is described as patient, it is an explorer, and it is tireless. Even in isolation, the spider works hard and gives greatly of itself.
The power of the comparison is thus made clear in the second stanza when we find to what the spider is being compared:
And you O my Soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my Soul.
The Speaker views his own soul as comparable to a spider. Like the first stanza, the Speaker describes his own soul as existing in isolation. He specifically describes “measureless oceans of space.” Also like the spider from the first stanza, the Speaker describes himself as working tirelessly to create connection. While the spider might value a connection to a wall, or to food, it is not immediately stated clearly to what the Speaker’s soul might be connected. He describes the connection as a “bridge” and an “anchor.”
It’s also unclear to me whether to view the Speaker’s personal isolation as positive or negative. As a result, I view it as both. On the one hand, the spider in stanza one is described as one that explores. If the comparison holds for the Speaker’s soul, then the isolation described seems voluntary in nature also. Exploration often has a positive connotation attached to it. However, the spider’s exploration is born out of need and the eventual connection created by its web building is necessary for its survival. Spiders need isolated places to built their webs. They need to successfully build webs that trap dinner or else they will die.
Perhaps for the Speaker, a similar dynamic is in place here. The isolation may be voluntary but – as with the spider – it may also be necessary. Some souls are born wanderers. A failure to create a new connection with that exploration could be as catastrophic for the Speaker as it would be for the spider.
The other parallel between the spider and the Speaker is the work. The spider pours itself out quite literally. In the case of the Speaker, rather than literal filaments, we see musing, venturing, throwing, and “seeking the spheres.” The Speaker pours himself out metaphorically.
I pay extra attention here to the alliterative “seeking the spheres.” This lines has a religious or celestial connotation and as such gives some direction as to the Speaker’s thoughts.
Ultimately, the spider/soul metaphor makes sense though it is not an obvious comparison at first blush.
From the poem’s wiki page:
“A Noiseless Patient Spider” is a short poem by Walt Whitman, published in an 1891 edition of Leaves of Grass. It was originally part of his poem “Whispers of Heavenly Death”, written expressly for The Broadway, A London Magazine, issue 10 (October 1868), numbered as stanza “3”. It was retitled “A Noiseless Patient Spider” and reprinted as part of a larger cluster in Passage to India (1871).