Are Emerson's "The Rhodora" and Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider" similar in terms of their ideas?
There are quite a few similarities in Emerson’s “The Rhodora” and Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”.
The first I noticed was the sense of discovery within the speaker. Each speaker has an awareness of encountering a larger, more transcendental idea contained within the small body of the spider and the flower. In Whitman, it was “I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated” (line 2) and in Emerson it was “when the sea-winds pierced our solitudes,/ I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods/spreading its leafless blooms” (line 2-4). Whitman encountered the transcendent idea of the soul’s longing to be connected contained within the body of the spider. Emerson encountered the idea of the beauty that dwells in being. Though it was only a simple encounter, he found the undefinable quality of being and beauty contained within the flower and within the moment itself. Both poems also create a similar kind of moment of encounter for the reader. As the speaker encounters the object, the reader encounters the poem in a similar way. We happen upon the poem in the solitude of reading.
Another similarity within the two poems is the existential questioning and how the object encountered came to symbolize that. For Whitman, the existential desire is oriented around the idea of connection. The spider in Whitman’s poem is shown pulling “filament” (line 4) from itself and casting it to create a spider web. The speaker commands his own soul to do something similar, sending out “the gossamer thread you fling” (line 10). The speaker hopes the lines he sends forth will not only create a kind of web, but one that will connect him to a meaning more powerful than himself. In the same way that the spider sought to “explore the vacant vast surrounding” (line 3), the speaker seeks “the measureless oceans of space” to be connected by the filaments of his own soul.
For Emerson, the existential question is a similar kind of desire for an interconnectedness of moments or fate. This is revealed within the last four lines of the poem. The speaker questions what it was that brought the flower into the same moment in “why thou wert there…/ I never thought to ask; I never knew” (line 14-15), recognizing the serendipity of the encounter. The speaker recognized his own path. But because the flower is Other, the speaker will never be able to know the moments that led it to that same moment. He wonders if there was an external power that led them both into that moment by claiming “the self-same power that brought me there, brought you” (line 17). And despite never quite comprehending that power, the speaker felt its presence. It was enough for him to feel that power through the encounter with the flower.