A Noiseless Patient Spider

by Walt Whitman

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Themes and Meanings

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“A Noiseless Patient Spider” is a poem about loneliness, a common theme in verse. This loneliness, however, cannot be relieved by a pensive memory as in William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” nor is it an emotion emanating from a lost relationship as in Robert Frost’s “Reluctance.” This is a loneliness that grows out of an inherent tendency of the body and soul to attempt to unite with an elusive divine entity in order to gain immortality.

It is significant that loneliness arising from separation from one’s kind is self-generated and voluntary—the spider “stood isolated.” Ironically, “detachment,” which is related to the soul, connotes instead a severing of ties by some force on a higher level; such an unnatural separation generates a compelling inner urgency to reattach and thereby restore access to the immortal circuit. The absence of color in the poetic description intensifies the pathos of the plight of the soul, infusing a feeling that is almost despair.

The sense of skewed proportion is frightening. A minuscule spider, attempting to chart a boundless vacuity with grossly inadequate equipment, becomes a living symbol of the pathetic plight of mortal humanity. The human soul, too, must deal with the unknown. Unlike the spider’s day-by-day spinning, however, the soul’s reaching out is not part of the daily routine: It is an essential, extraordinary phenomenon. The impending premonition of a continued moral crisis is disturbingly inherent in the effort: Everything (immortality) is hanging on a silken thread, which is being tossed tentatively and figuratively into an unidentified, undefined “somewhere.”

In “Song of Myself” (stanza 50), Whitman affirmed: “There is in me—I do not know what it is . . ./ It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness.” In “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” the poet focuses on this conundrum of death and immortality. Neither the persona nor his soul realizes the euphoria suggested by the title of the group of poems in which they first took breath, “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” for the poem ends without closure. In keeping with his concept of life and death as ongoing and evolutionary, Whitman chose neither to present the beauty of the symmetry of the finished web nor to record the necessary order imposed upon earthly chaos. Instead, he paused to expose the trauma of the soul’s desperate search for meaning, and in the untiring throwing out of gossamer threads, he revealed the infinite beauty of the heroic dignity of the human soul.

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