I’ve indirectly talked about Walt Whitman on this blog before, when I applied his introduction to the original, 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass to the 1938 film If I Were King. But I’ve never discussed any of his actual poetry. Much like John Dryden, the last poet whose work I analyzed, most of Whitman’s best-known poems are both long and dense. Think “Song of Myself” or “I Sing the Body Electric.” As such, he doesn’t lend himself to the casual blog treatment.
Still, I think it’s time I give this central figure in American verse his due. As such, let’s take a quick dive into one of his shorter gems, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” The text is as follows:
A Noiseless Patient Spider
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.
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.
“A Noiseless Patient Spider” provides us with a perfect example of what’s called an emblem structure. A poem using an emblem structure builds an argument in two parts. In the first part, the speaker describes an object in some detail; in the second part, they reflect on the meaning, the significance, of that object. What starts out like a still life soon becomes a metaphor.
Now, unlike the octave-sestet structure of a Petrarchan sonnet, say, there’s no rule dictating where the shift in an emblematic poem will occur. However, in the case of Whitman’s poem, the two parts of the argument are very easy to spot. The first stanza gives us the description of the object (a spider spinning its web), and the second stanza gives us the speaker’s reflection on the object (how his soul is like the spider). The first lines of each stanza even act as signposts, introducing the subject of each stanza so the reader can track the speaker’s thought progression.
So how is the soul like the spider? Let’s look at how Whitman presents the spider. Before the creature even appears in the body of the poem, we learn that our subject is both “noiseless” and “patient,” which is a calming pair of adjectives, and though accurate, perhaps not the first things we think of when we hear “spider.” In the second line, the speaker gives us the spider’s situation: “on a little promontory it stood isolated.” There’s our starting premise: a spider, all alone, sitting calmly on the ledge.
From here, though, things start moving. Line 3 presents us with a syntactical ambiguity. “Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding” is parallel to the previous line, so we instinctively make the speaker the agent of everything in the phrase. In this case, that would mean the speaker is considering “how to explore the vacant vast surrounding.” But the subsequent line clarifies the agent here is the spider, not the speaker. The spider “launch’d forth filament” with goal of confronting the emptiness before it.
Whitman has put the still life into literal motion, and if line 5 is any indication, it’s a perpetual motion at that: “[e]ver unreeling…ever tirelessly speeding.” It’s also a motion the spider itself generates, for it launches the filament “out of itself.” Here we have all the material needed for a metaphor. All Whitman needs to do is to make the target of that metaphor explicit.
Indeed, the parallels between the first stanza spider and the second stanza soul are extensive. The “measureless oceans of space” that the speaker’s soul is “[s]urrounded, detached” within recall the “vacant vast surrounding” that the spider faced, as does “ceaselessly” bring us back to “tirelessly”: neither being’s efforts will end anytime soon. And of course, the soul’s actions are those of the spider as well. Just as the spider spews out its silk, the soul is always “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.” The soul’s efforts are even likened to the spider’s material: it shoots out a “ductile anchor,” a “gossamer thread.” Just what the soul is seeking to achieve may be nebulous—and what great metaphysical mystery isn’t?—but we at least have a sense of what the soul’s actions are like. And that’s probably more than we could say going in.
Something else I’d highlight is how Whitman’s musicality perfectly reflects the actions of both the spider and the soul. Now, Whitman is of course famous as a pioneer in free verse, but free verse doesn’t reject meter, merely the rigidity of fixed forms. It embraces the flexibility of everyday speech while still elevating it to the level of verse.
Specifically, the first stanzas’s use of falling rhythms, of trochees (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) and dactyls (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables), embodies how the spider must reach out into the unknown emptiness before it. The repetition of “filament,” of the spider’s instrument of exploration, is the most overt instance of this: “filament, | filament, | filament, | out of it | self.” But it continues into the subsequent line: “Ever un | reeling them, | ever | tire | lessly | speeding them.” The switch to trochees is a nice touch here, tightening the rhythm right at that most determined phrase: “ever tirelessly.”
As an exercise, you might go through the second stanza of the poem, and see if Whitman uses the same musical underscoring for the soul as he does for the spider. If so, then we have a consistent “pattern” (however unpatterned it actually is) for soundplay in the poem. If it’s different, what does that change tell us about how Whitman sees the soul in comparison to the spider?
What are your thoughts on “A Noiseless Patient Spider”? Feel free to share your opinions and analyses, or to suggest more classic poems to give this sort of treatment to, in the comments.