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 Poet of the People: François Villon in “If I Were King”

The original, 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass begins with a free-wheeling prose introduction, touching on poetry, philosophy, and the American experience. Among the many topics Whitman covers is the role of poetry and the poet in the world of politics and government. Given his background as a journalist, it is not surprising that Whitman sees the poet as having a role to play in public affairs. He writes:

If peace is the routine out of him speaks the spirit of peace, rich, large, thrifty, building vast and populous cities, encouraging agriculture and the arts and commerce —lighting the study of man, the soul, immortality —federal, state or municipal government, marriage, health, freetrade, intertravel by land and sea . . . nothing too close, nothing too far off . . . the stars not too far off. In war he is the most deadly force of the war. Who recruits him recruits horse and foot . . . he fetches parks of artillery the best that engineer ever knew. If the time becomes slothful and heavy he knows how to arouse it . . .

A lovely sentiment, though in a time when poetry is not so widely read, perhaps difficult to believe. Yet it is so ecstatic in its praise that one cannot help but get caught up in its call to arms.

I found myself thinking back to this passage after watching If I Were King (dir. Frank Lloyd, 1938). The film may be set in 15th-century France rather than the 19th-century United States, but it still recalls Whitman’s vision of the poet in the public sphere. Even more: I think the film offers us another way to understand Whitman’s words.

Adapted from the play and novel of the same name by Justin Huntly McCarthy, If I Were King tells a fictional story about a real-life poet, François Villon. A rogue as well as writer, this film’s version of Villon (played by Ronald Colman) is something of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from the royal storehouses to feed the hungry citizens of Paris. Times are tough in the French city, with a Burgundian siege slowly starving the populace. Meanwhile the king and his court, who have enough food to last them six months, seem oblivious to the conditions on the streets.

Villon finds this state of affairs intolerable, and he will say so to anyone within earshot. This includes, as it turns out, an undercover Louis XI (Basil Rathbone), who has come to Villon’s favorite tavern in search of a traitor, his Grand Constable (John Miljan). Not only does Louis get his man, he also gets an earful from Villon, who takes him for an ordinary tavern-goer. After proposing an ironic toast to Louis (“May the Burgundians take the city away from him—better still, may they take him away from the city”), Villon claims that, given the chance, he would be much better at running the country:

I don’t wish to appear boastful, Brother Long-Nose, but I should think a child of two could do better. Had I been born in a brocaded bed, I might have led armies and served France. As it is you see me here, consorting with cutthroats and wantons and wasting my time with a dull old buzzard like you.

The aristocratic structure of French government greatly limits Villon’s potential power. He cannot be Whitman’s “most deadly force of the war” because he is not of the nobility, from whose ranks the generals are drawn. He can have no soldiers at his command to inspire, no people in the streets to rally to war.

Louis, poking at the poet’s presumption, asks what Villon would do if he, in fact, were king. While Villon mentions enjoying the finest of foods and purging the court of its inept and crooked nobles, his most inspiring proposal concerns how he would connect to his subjects:

VILLON: I’d try to know my subjects. I’d try to earn their devotion and loyalty, instead of their loathing.

LOUIS: By abolishing taxes, I suppose?

VILLON: No! By abolishing despair and substituting hope! I’d learn the longings in their hearts, as a man of the people would, seeing them as they are and admitting that their vices are as deep-rooted as their virtues. I’d treat them as my children, instead of as my enemies. So, by knowing the worst in them, I bring out the best in them.

He would still, as it turns out, be “consorting with cutthroats and wantons,” because those are the people he would be governing. It is somewhat foolish to talk about a democratic spirit to monarchical rule, but Villon’s vision shares at least Whitman’s love of the common people.

Villon soon gets his chance to put that vision into practice. The Grand Constable comes to the tavern, intending to arrest Villon for raiding the storehouses. A skirmish ensues, and Villon kills the Grand Constable, putting Louis in an unusual position: he must punish Villon for killing one of his advisers, and also reward him for killing a traitor. His solution: make Villon the new Grand Constable, and show him that governance is not as easy as it looks.

Indeed, Villon has great difficulty in his new position—but only when he must play by the rules of the aristocracy. Notably, getting the lords to even consider an attack on the Burgundians proves impossible. They do seem overly cautious, given the desperate circumstances. But Villon’s penchant for verbal sparring wins him no friends in the war room. Earlier in film, Villon quipped that “poetry is its own worst enemy,” and here he proves his own point. The nobility aren’t going to stand around and let some poet insult them; they will simply render his words powerless.

No, the poet is far more effective in governance where the common people are concerned. Most obviously, Villon calls on the masses of Paris to counter a charge from the Burgundians, which is what ultimately saves the city from starvation. The people’s surprise success is literally the only thing that convinces the generals to fight. “Who recruits him recruits horse and foot,” indeed.

But even his rhetoric within the court appeals to democratic principles. Consider his message for the Burgundian envoy, who offers the king “an honorable surrender.” Villon’s ode to the people’s strength would hardly seem out of place in Whitman’s preface:

Kings are great in the eyes of their people, but the people are great in the eyes of God, and it is the people of France who are speaking to you now. We are armed and provisioned. We are warm and comfortable behind our strong walls. We laugh at your threats. But, if we who eat were starved, if we who drink were dry, if we who are warm were frozen, our answer would still be the same: ha! We laugh at you, we the people, and the king.

So strong is Villon’s message for the envoy, it seems to win over even Louis, who laughs the envoy out of his court. This victory is short-lived, however; the fateful meeting with the generals follows soon after this scene.

If I Were King may present a rather optimistic view of what poetry can do in the realm of politics. Still, it acknowledges its limits, and in doing so, it helps to refine the praise that Whitman offers in his preface. The power that poets wield is not intrinsic to them. It depends on their audience.