A Noiseless Patient Spider

by Walt Whitman

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The Poem

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“A Noiseless Patient Spider” is a short poem, its ten uneven lines divided into two stanzas of five lines each. The initial focus of the poem is a spider that is being observed by the speaker. The use of the indefinite article “a” in the title and the first line individualizes this arachnid, separating it from the representative mass and emphasizing the personal nature of its efforts. The adjectives “noiseless” and “patient” anticipate the poem’s tone of pathos.

This poem is written in the first person, which is typical of lyric poetry; less common, however, is that the speaker directly addresses and converses with his own soul, which occurs in the second stanza. The reader observes the one observing (the speaker), the one observed (the spider), and the one addressed (the soul).

“A Noiseless Patient Spider” begins with a description of a common and relatively insignificant incident: A spider, all alone on a little promontory, quietly and tirelessly casts out web-threads from its spinnerets into an illimitable, inestimable emptiness that is all it can see; quickly, untiringly, continuously, it attempts to examine and define this significant, palpable unknown that binds it. In this first stanza, the speaker, a seemingly dispassionate viewer of this scene in nature, is almost indiscernible, the only reference to his presence being the words “I marked.”

The designation that the spider “stood isolated” makes clear that its continued launching of filaments is a personal endeavor, its location on a promontory, as opposed to the plain, adding a dimension of precariousness. The description of the filaments emanating “out of” the spider “itself” makes clear that the process is innately creative; the metaphor of the web intensifies the action by conveying ambiguity concerning success.

In the second stanza, the poet transfers his focus from nature to humanity: In the pantheistic tradition, the experience of the spider becomes a metaphor symbolizing the soul’s quest for the unification of earthly and heavenly existence. Directly addressing his own soul, the persona visualizes in the spider’s action a reflection of the pathetic yet heroic struggle he is waging to find immortality. The sense of human insignificance is monstrous. The speaker is imprisoned, “surrounded” by the barrenness, yet alienated, “detached.” The unknown vastness is palpable: “oceans of space.” Intimidated by the gulf between life and what follows, the soul stands “Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.”

The instability of the situation is confirmed by the soul’s attempts to “anchor,” and the improbability of success is made explicit with the confessed ignorance of the destination, which is identified only as “somewhere.” The means available to effect a connection is also less than encouraging: A silken thread seems much too fragile to form an eternal bridge. The poem concludes without resolution, leaving only the lingering image of the soul casting forth its gossamer threads, with the persona’s final “O my soul” sounding like a cry.

Forms and Devices

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In another poem, “Had I the Choice,” Walt Whitman expresses a special preference for the ability to convey the “undulation of one wave” and asks the sea to “breathe one breathupon my verse,/ And leave its odor there.” “A Noiseless Patient Spider” (like numerous other poems) communicates indirectly this sound and sense of the sea. In the lines “And you O my soul where you stand,/ Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,” the poet simulates the flux and reflux of the ocean, simultaneously communicating the motion of the action that is occurring: the soul perpetually casting forth, anticipating a connection with heaven.

In this instance, much of this sensation of...

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waves laving the shore is achieved by the poet’s use of alliteration of the sibilants, making up 28 of the total 140 syllable sounds in the poem. This marriage of sense and sound occurs often in Whitman; equally effective in this poem is his simulation of casting: “Forth filament, filament, filament.”

In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson (August, 1856), Whitman spoke of poets “walking freely out from the old traditions”; he became the forerunner of such innovation through his rejection of conventional subjects, language, rhythm, and rhyme. Yet his preference for open verse, although unorthodox, provides, surprisingly, plentiful evidence of his frequent reliance on traditional uses of repetition.

One such reiterative device is epanaphora (initial repetition), which is used effectively in the conclusion of “A Noiseless Patient Spider”: “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.”

Epanalepsis (internal repetition), however, contributes more than epanaphora to this particular work. For example, the word “marked” refers first to the persona—“I marked”—then to the spider, who “mark’d how to explore,” providing an essential transitional link between the two. Other examples of the use of internal reiteration of words (or their variant forms) to provide coherence in this short, ten-line poem follow: “you,” “stood and stand,” “surrounding” and “surrounded,” “them,” and “ever.” Whitman’s use of the interjection “O” affords yet another example of epanalepsis, and the sense of awe imparted by the usage is sustained indirectly by means of assonance in “Soul,” “oceans,” “form’d,” and “anchor hold.”

In his 1876 preface to Leaves of Grass, the poet referred to his verses as his “recitatives” (the recitative is a musical style in which the text is presented rhetorically in the rhythm of natural speech with some melodic variations), and Whitman’s poetry exudes a sense of music throughout, not in the traditional manner, but in a new vein, much of it emanating from his expertise in using the repetition of sounds, words, and phrases to create expressive rhythms.

Whitman’s handling of the centrifugal metaphor of the spider affords an excellent example of the Romantic concept of nature as wayseer for human truth; as he wrote in “Song of Myself,” “The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or motion of waves a key.” The spider throwing out webs and the soul thrusting toward eternity afford a singular analogy that can be extended logically even beyond the poem. If the actions are successful, the processes will end with a miracle in the beautiful symmetry of an intricate web for the spider, and the achievement of the fusion of the carnal and the spirit for the soul.


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