Choose a poem from Walt Whitman and explain how it reveals Romantic thinking. Support with specific examples from the poem.
In Walt Whitman's "A Noiseless, Patient Spider," there are a number of characteristics of American Romanticism.
Characteristics, in general, include: the emotional, individualism, a love of separateness or nature, creative vitality..., and...introspection, among several others.
I chose this poem because it provided an easy identification of these characteristics. In the poem, the speaker watches a spider as it patiently builds its web, repeating its movements over and over and over again. The spider is on an isolated "promontory" from which it throws out "filament, filament, filament" giving one the sense of quiet concentration and continuous endeavor, in order to explore the "vacant, vast surrounding" as it continues to work tirelessly.
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.
In the second stanza, Whitman makes a connection between the life of a spider and a human being. The speaker notes that he, too, is surrounded by enormous, immeasurable space: "ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing" to learn of his environment, much like the spider. This continues until man can build an anchored bridge to connect the spheres of life with a "thread" that will somehow connect him to the world—connect his soul to the world.
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.
The emotional essence is most evident in the poem's last line, where the speaker hopes that the "thread" flung will find a connection for his soul. A sense of the individualism is found in the second stanza, where a man addresses his own soul, on its personal journey through the universe, trying to find a "joining" of some kind. Nature is evident with the metaphor the speaker uses when comparing the work of the patient spider to the work of a man, even to referring to the "filament" of the spider, and the "gossamer thread" of the man.
The aspect of creative energy is also present in comparing the microcosm of the spider's world to the microcosm of the speaker— as isolated as the spider, but looking for a link between a world of solitude and one of community with someone or something greater than himself. Lastly, there is the use of introspection present as the speaker looks at the example of the spider and finds a parallel with his own life, to find some meaning in his life experience; the work of the spider and the man are metaphorically similar, but the speaker's ability to find meaning in his existence alludes to a higher plane of existence.
"When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" is another of Whitman's poems that illustrates Romantic principles. In the poem, a narrator explains how, when he listened to an astronomer lecture about the stars, showing figures and charts and equations, he started to feel lethargic and ill. So, he got up and went outside, alone, into the night, and looked up at the stars.
This poem addresses the Romantic emphasis on the individual and the power the individual has to divine truth from natural settings. There is something to be learned in a classroom, certainly, but we learn truth—the things that are truly important—on our own, through our own intuition. On his own, the narrator "ris[es] and glid[es]," becomes active and almost holy in his movement. The night is "mystical" and the solitude and silence are "perfect." We can achieve something most like perfection, the sublime, in nature, and this notion is incredibly Romantic.