Exercise 5 and 6 (Poetry Explication)
Prof. Eileen Joy
A Noiseless Patient Spider
A noiseless patient spider,
I marked where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Marked how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect
Till the bridge you will need be formed, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
I have chosen to explicate Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” The poem was first published in 1870 and was later included in a version of Leaves of Grass. The poem is written in free verse as are most of Whitman’s poems. We are immediately introduced to a spider that is going about his spider business as he threads his gossamer and creates his intricate webs. He is standing on a little promontory, or some sort of headland as he is launching his filament and unreeling it and connecting it. Then the poem sharply turns and the poet speaks of his soul in relation to the spider. His soul is musing and venturing to connect as it is flung all over. His soul is attempting to bridge worlds and take hold. In short that is the poem.
This poem is not of the classical kind, for it is written in free verse where most rules are not kept. But the free verse does allow Whitman to bend the language and construct lines and produce feeling that would otherwise be impossible. This becomes most obvious as we look at the longer lines such as 4 and 8 that speak of the launching of “filament, filament, filament” in line 4 and the launching of his soul in line 8 that carries on for eighteen beats. We see combinations of short and long lines such as line 1, which is seven beats, and line 2, which is seventeen beats. In the beginning the poem seems almost dissonant in its pauses and beats, but as it goes on we feel and hear more resonance, and ultimately, with the last two lines, we feel and hear resolve. I will speak more about this resolve later.
In this poem we begin with a spider and end with a soul, but as we read it, we feel and sense an intimate connection between the two. As the spider flings his gossamer, so the soul flings itself, and as the spider attempts to bridge and connect his weavings so does the soul attempt to bridge itself with others and with life. We begin very simply with a simple spider, but at the close we are exposed to the deepest longings of the human soul in its attempt to connect and produce meaning. The way Whitman “marks” the spider is similar to the way in which Donne marks the flea in his poem. In Whitman’s poem we are not so much taught a meaning or being convinced by the insect as in Donne’s, but rather, we are being shown a portrait of the soul of the poet and possibly of our own.
Diction plays a very important role in “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” We can observe this fact from the second word in the poem, noiseless. Whitman did not choose the words quiet or silent, because quiet conveys the sense of low volume and silent seems to convey a temporal quiet. The spider was completely silent, maybe eternally silent, and that is why he chose noiseless. When the spider launches his filament Whitman tells us the fact no less than three times- “filament, filament, filament.” It seems as if this gossamer is being thrown everywhere, all over the spider’s “vast surrounding.” I believe Whitman was trying to hammer the point of launched filament so that we would see the soul in the same light as it launches itself all over “the spheres.” The alliteration of the filaments is also musical and rhythmical, as is “vacant vast” and “seeking the spheres.” It is also important to note that Whitman speaks of the soul as if it were almost totally apart from him. He repeats the word “you” in relation to the soul four times in the second stanza, and even uses the word “detached” when describing the soul. It truly seems as if the soul is detached from Whitman and is launching itself on its own accord, because it has to, because the soul is something that cannot be restrained or controlled.
Both stanzas in the poem are five lines long and one sentence each, and therefore, the sentences are complex and filled with clauses. I do not believe the poem would have the same effect it does if it were broken with any more periods. It has a wonderful flow that is somewhat swift and would not work if it was paused with periods. The poem matches the way in which the words are laid on the page. For example, the first two lines of both stanzas are somewhat choppy and slow and both lines are relatively short in comparison with the others. But the poem seems to pick up speed in the last three lines of both stanzas and the clauses are constructed accordingly.
The images of this poem are many, but since the poem is so concise, they are all important. First of all, the choice of the spider was necessary, for there is no other animal that would fit the description of connection, creation, and the launching of itself as does the spider. We also notice that the spider is isolated on a promontory; it is the master of its domain and possesses very human qualities with its patience and exploration. Though we know the reason a spider spins his web, the poem seems to present to us the idea of selflessness in the spider, for he is launching all this gossamer out of itself and it is always unreeling it and connecting it, as if it were an irreplaceable job. The soul is near to all of these high spider ideals, but also possesses much more and has a more important job. The image of the soul standing in boundless seas of space is romantic, but we also see the image of selfless work, much like the spider, as the soul attempts to build a bridge to something or someone that we are never literally told. We also see the soul flinging itself all over like the spider until he catches somewhere.
There are no direct allusions in Whitman’s poem, but Whitman did write poetry that contained in it political ideas and American ideals. He wrote his poetry in one of the most trying times of our country’s short life, during and after the Civil War. The country was in such tumult that Whitman might possibly have wrote this with the “connection” of the country in mind, with the soul trying to reconcile two worlds, though I believe it is much more general than that, nonetheless, it remains a possibility.
As I mentioned earlier, we are given a wonderful resolve by the rhyme scheme of the last two lines. The last two lines remind me of a strong heroic couplet that complete a Shakespearian sonnet. The poem would still have achieved affect and purpose if the last two lines did not rhyme, but in rhyming them Whitman connects and weaves finality, much like the spider’s attempt to complete the web and the soul’s trying to complete the bridge. It is very interesting to note that the soul achieves what is spoken of it in the poem, for we feel connected and part of it at the close, or that we are the poet and the soul is our very own. Although we are never actually told what the soul is trying to bridge, I believe it is the chasms between humanity and the abyss we have with one another. Sometimes there is no greater feeling in all the world than when one person truly understands you, when one friend truly connects with you. The poem gives us hope that our souls are always attempting to connect, that if we are willing, a bridge may always exist that spans hatred and intolerance; that prejudice can never defeat the will of the human soul.