Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”: An Analysis

Walt WhitmanI’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.

A Top 5 List: Modern Poetry Classics

Shanah McCready, known to the Internet as the Bionic Book Worm, organizes a series of book-related Top 5 lists every Tuesday. This week’s theme is “modern classics,” which is quite a broad topic, and an inherently speculative one. After all, who knows what future generations of writers and readers will latch onto? I doubt anyone thought Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, for example, would cast such a long shadow on American literature.

The doubt involved in making a list of “modern classics” is doubly present when it comes to poetry. Given how vanishingly rare it is for a contemporary poet to achieve broad recognition in the literary community, let alone the general reading public, picking any collection as a potential staple of future reading lists seems, shall we say, hopeful.

But I shall remain hopeful. As such, I’ve decided to put poetry front and center on this list. Here are five poetry collections released since 2000, listed in order of release, which at the very least ought to be considered modern classics.

Sleeping with the Dictionary

1) Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
University of California Press, 2002
Links: publisher | Amazon

I’ve lost track of how often I’ve pressed this book under the weight of the photocopier, curious to see how students will react to Mullen’s plays on form. This is a collection that turns “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” into a police blotter (“European Folk Tale Variant”), a courting ritual into a litany of tongue-twisters (“Any Lit”), and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 into a paranoid rant about the Walt Disney Company (“Variation on a Theme Park”). Mullen takes the diction and rhetoric we take for granted everyday and puts it through the grinder, showing how meaningless (or meaningful!) it is at base. It’s a collection I’m not sure I will ever full-heartedly love, but it’s one I will always deeply respect.

 

Sea of Faith2) John Brehm, Sea of Faith
University of Wisconsin Press, 2004
Links: publisher | Amazon

Whereas Sleeping with the Dictionary is a book that always inspires me to think about writing, John Brehm’s Sea of Faith in one that inspires me to actually write. Nearly every poem in the collection is one I wish I could have written, because Brehm’s an expert at converting raw sensory inputs into polished works. Take “Coney Island,” which piles one overwhelming detail on top of another, to the point where I believe that “we’ll actually / get on a rollercoaster / just to calm ourselves down.” For another: “Sound Check, Lower Manhattan,” which finds the profundity beneath what sounds like  “[j]ust a jumble of songs and jackhammers and / roaring garbage trucks.” Sea of Faith is probably my most obscure pick, which is a great shame. It deserves a wider audience.

 

Blood Dazzler

3) Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler
Coffee House, 2008
Links: publisher | Amazon

An unfortunately timely choice, Patricia Smith’s collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina is a poignant and inventive account of that storm’s particular devastation. Smith both employs a wide variety of forms (free verse, sestinas, abecedarians, etc) and inhabits a number of personas (politicians, residents, even the storm itself) to get the full scope of the tragedy across to the reader. If nothing else, you should listen to some of Smith’s readings on the Poetry Foundation website, which brutally highlight the sound-play at work, especially with regards to the poem “Katrina”: “I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted / a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.”

 

Dear Corporation,4) Adam Fell, Dear Corporation,
H_NGM_N, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

Inspired by the United States Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC, Adam Fell’s prose poems addressed to the person Corporation burn with confused rage and raging confusion; as one of the letters begins, “I don’t know how to say how I feel politely, or poetically.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the collection’s political origins, each letter is also a deeply personal statement; the mere thought of the speaker reaching out to Corporation, of all persons, for solace is heart-rending. And as with Smith, Fell is an excellent reader of his own work. If you can find a recording or see him read in person, do so.

 

Citizen5) Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Graywolf, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

If you follow poetry, then you knew this one was coming. A multimedia meditation on race in modern America, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric proved relevant to the broader literary conversation in a way that so few poetry collections are able to today. That alone would almost guarantee it a spot on any list of classics; that these reflections are so sharp only puts it over the top. Seriously, the decision to cast John McEnroe as a Greek chorus in the essay on Serena Williams is absolutely brilliant (and given recent happenings, strangely prescient). To quote the book’s final line: “It was a lesson.” Indeed, indeed.

So there’s my list. What do you think? Are there any poetry collections released this century that you would have included? Let me know in the comments.

Giving Children the Classics: Moppet Books and Copyright

For the past few weeks, Publishers Weekly has been covering a copyright case involving publisher Moppet Books, which seeks to print a series of picture book adaptations of several classic novels that are still under copyright. These “KinderGuides,” as Moppet calls them, would aim to get young children interested in reading classic works of fiction. However, the estates of several authors, as well as Random Penguin House and Simon & Schuster, have brought suit to prevent the books’ publication. Thus far, the litigation has gone the copyright holders’ way.

As Andrew Albanese reported this past Thursday, Judge Jed Rakoff of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has:

…signed off on a permanent injunction immediately barring Moppet Books from distributing in the U.S. any versions of its KinderGuides series held to be infringing, until the works on which they are based enter the public domain. In addition, Moppet Books also agreed to destroy all current copies of the infringing works “in its possession or under its control” within 10 days… [However,] the injunction includes an automatic stay on the destruction of existing stock, pending the “final outcome” of the appeal process.

I am obviously not a lawyer, so I don’t know whether Moppet Books’ KinderGuides are sufficiently transformative to qualify for fair use, as their defense has claimed. (Completely uninformed gut feeling: the copyright holders are in the legal right here.) And I can’t comment much on the adaptations themselves, since all I’ve seen of these books are few scattered page scans included in the press coverage.

What I can do, though, is talk about the concept of adapting classic novels for children. Based on my own experience, I think that something like the KinderGuides could be a valuable tool for getting children interested in the classics, and it is a shame that copyright law makes publishing such adaptations for tomorrow’s canon so difficult.

When I was in elementary school (probably 3rd grade), I remember a used book seller coming to our classroom and laying out tons and tons of cheap books for us to buy with our spare quarters. Younger me came across a somewhat beat-up paperback with a cool looking cover and an interesting title: Around the World in Eighty Days.

Now, this was not in fact Jules Verne’s original 1873 novel, but rather an illustrated and abridged version published by Moby Books. And oh, how I loved it. Every spare moment I had for the next week went toward following the adventures of Phileas Fogg and Passpartout in their quest to, well, travel around the world in eighty days. I can still see Passpartout’s towering figure from the illustrations on every other page, still feel the tension from the hurried, perilous transatlantic voyage on the Henrietta.

I wouldn’t read the original, unabridged version of Around the World in Eighty Days for a few more years (which was about the time it took me to realize that I hadn’t actually read it yet). But that cheap little paperback sparked my love of Jules Verne, and for that I’m thankful. I’m pretty sure that if I had started with the original text, younger me would have been rather bored and confused, or at least overwhelmed by the length, and would thus be reluctant to give Jules Verne a fair shake when he was older.

For the Twains and Melvilles of the world, the Dickenses and Brontës, it’s easy to find approachable adaptations of their works for children. After all, all their books are in the public domain, so there is no legal barrier to producing them. But when it comes to the likes of Hemingway, Kerouac, Clarke and Capote (the authors whose estates are involved in the Moppet case), copyright law makes producing such adaptations far more difficult.

Whether something like KinderGuides would actually lead to more children reading classic literature, I’m not certain. But at the very least, it did so for me. It’s an idea worth pursuing.