A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman

I think for a great many people, a noiseless patient spider isn’t exactly a good thing. Not that everyone has or should have arachnophobia, but there’s just something about spiders that strikes unease into the heart. Is it the fact that they have an unnecessary and ridiculous number of eyes? Or legs? The fact that they bite? Or the way they weave expert traps an lie in wait for the next victim to devour?

You know something, it’s probably that.

Regardless of why, spiders are an interesting topic. They’re rather unique little creatures, and are apparently the subject of both your nightmares and Walt Whitman’s imagination, as his poem, A Noiseless Patient Spider, is a source of inspiration, a poem that really makes you think, and its based on exactly what the title would have you think it’s based on. What follows will be my own personal interpretation of the poem.

 

A Noiseless Patient Spider Analysis

Verse by Verse

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.

I really like this verse myself, just because I’ve always thought about the relentless work ethic of spiders as something that I could never quite relate to. The narrator of the poem sees a spider on a promontory — which is a kind of ledge that juts out over water — and watches as it plans out its own path, a path that is later marked by the silk that is being continually produced by the tireless creature. It’s amazing, really, to think about how efficiently a spider can exist. They can essentially fly, so long as they have a ledge to be attached to, and they tirelessly work to create a trap and a home that is absolutely perfect for them, seemingly never giving up or growing tired. They are a rather understandable subject for poetry.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,

Surrounded, surrounded, 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.

And then we get to this stanza. The first two lines seem to describe the environment perceived and understood by the human soul, while the final three describe its movements, and expresses the idea of a soul that is unchained by a human body, one that can simply drift and float free. A “gossamer thread” is another way of saying a spider’s silk (or something similar to a spider’s silk), and here it becomes clear that the narrator is comparing his soul to a spider, as something that works tirelessly, and always moves forward, isolated, but constantly seeking to explore the vastness of its environment.

 

A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman Further Analysis

A strong theme behind this poem is giving a corporeal metaphor to represent an abstract idea. While “spider” might not have been the comparison I might have used, it certainly makes sense as a metaphor for an unchained soul (which in itself is a metaphor, of course, but it’s difficult to talk about abstract concepts without them). What I wonder is where Whitman imagines the soul travels to once it flings out a web that sticks to something. When a soul drifts, what is it doing? Is it, like a spider, simply moving for the sake of movement? Drifting around sounds lonely, and hollow.

In the first stanza, the spider is described as exploring its “vacant, vast surrounding,” perhaps alluding to the idea that all people are, at heart, alone. This would suggest that the narrator views his soul as being one that seeks companionship, and is constantly searching for a soul mate (interestingly, the spider metaphor stops working there, as female spiders are generally known to consume their mates at some point during, before, or shortly after their copulation… just another reason to think of spiders are strange and creepy beings, really).

The imagery employed in this poem is strong and beautiful. Each line calls to mind a specific image, even without using specific terms. Lines like “seeking the spheres” gives a very ethereal, almost celestial image to the readers that helps the poem to come into focus, and further solidifies this “real” image of the abstract soul.

 

Historical Context

To add a little more context to the poem, it was initially published in 1868, in a London Magazine. Originally, it was the third section of a much larger poem, entitled Whispers of Heavenly Death, which was later split into five short poems for his book, Passage to India in 1871: Whispers of Heavenly Death, Darest Thou Now O Soul, A Noiseless Patient Spider, The Last Invocation, and Pensive and Faltering. Each of these poems shares the common theme of exploring the nature of the human soul. Finally, it was reprinted in the 1891 edition Leaves of Grass.

The creation of Whispers of Heavenly Death was only one of many instances throughout this time period where Whitman wrote about the nature of the soul. What was going on in his life at that time — he would have been 49 — is difficult to say. It is known, however, especially based on his poem, Song of Myself, that he was a strong believer in deism, which gave him a fairly unique view on human life and the existence of the soul, which he viewed as an immortal and constantly evolving entity. A great many of Whitman’s personal beliefs were reflected in his poetry — in this sense, his writings here honest and truthful looks into his character. Whispers of Heavenly Death, and therefore by extension, A Noiseless Patient Spider, are very real insights into the life of Walt Whitman, as he was in the year 1868. This is a huge part of what makes all of his poems and writings so interesting — because they are so very real. A Noiseless Patient Spider is a very real look into the soul of Walt Whitman, which makes it a very poignant and very powerful poem to read and analyse.

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