"A Noiseless Patient Spider"
A Noiseless Patient Spider
|| Walt Whitman
|| 10. A Noiseless Patient Spider
|| Leaves of Grass
- 18. Whispers of Heavenly Death
|| Published/Written in 1900
By Walt Whitman
poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider” is a series of observations made by the speaker relating to a spider and his actions, whether figurative or literal. Through the observations of the spider the speaker relates his point of view about human souls. For example, when the speaker says that the spider “launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself” he is speaking both about a spider making a web and his soul attempting to make connections with the world, to feel a part of something, or find its place in the universe. The first stanza is directed more towards the spider, symbolizing the speaker’s soul while the second is more literal as the speaker directly addresses his soul.
Characterizing The Speaker
Many of the different observations found in the poem lead us to a more complete understanding of the speaker of the poem. For example, it seems that the speaker is lonely or feels as if he has been rejected, “I marked where on a little promontory it stood isolated.” This insight is further backed up in lines six and seven, “and you, o my soul where you stand,/surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space”. It could be inferred that the speaker is desperate to find a niche
in the universe, a place where he fits in, a place where he could be accepted. Just as the spider is attempting to build a literal web the speaker is attempting to build a figurative one of friends or family or anything that could be dear to him, that could give his life meaning.
The words that Whitman
chooses to use in his poem can be significant because of their secondary meanings. For example, line four of the poem, “it launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,” could have simply stated that the spider was making a web, but the words Whitman
chooses to use carry extra meaning. The idea of the spider “launching” filament supports the idea that there is a correlation between the spider and the speaker and symbolizes the speaker’s attempts to make connections in the universe. The words “out of itself” also support this idea, their connotation leads the reader to think of the filaments as attempts by the speaker’s soul to find meaning, and since they are coming from deep inside the reader, they are coming “out of itself.”
The poem's most prevalent literary technique is undoubtedly imagery; it is difficult to find just one line that does not have a vivid image in it that aids the reader in seeing exactly what Walt Whitman
intends them to see. The first, and one of the most important, examples occurs on the first line; “A noiseless patient spider.” This visual image brings pictures of small, perfectly still, spiders sitting on their perfect webs for days and days at a time, completely unmoving, no sign of life at all. It is amazing all the thoughts those four words can bring to mind. The image of the motionless spider, completely alone and isolated, as painted in the first three lines of the poem introduces the idea that the speaker feels alone in the world right off the bat. The image of the “vacant vast surrounding” also hints at the speaker’s possible doubt in the meaning of life. If the spider is the speaker’s soul then the surroundings should be the rest of the universe, and if the rest of the universe is empty and there are no other souls or things for the filaments to connect to, then what is the purpose of “tirelessly speeding them” on? The parallel image found on line eight and nine, “surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,/ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,” is a definite reference between the spider's plight and the speaker's. Both the speaker and the spider seem incapable of finding anything else in the universe, or at least anything of any meaning. However they both keep trying, either out of optimistic hope or blindness. It could be that the speaker is incapable of coming to terms with the idea that there could be nothing else in the universe besides himself, “the vacant vast surrounding” and is so optimistic or too incapable of that horrible realization to stop launching “forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself.” The last two lines of the poem can either be interpreted as supporting the idea that the speaker is habitually optimistic or as disproving the idea that the speaker is alone in the universe; “till the bridge you will need be formed, till the ductile anchor hold,/ till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, o my soul.” What ever interpretation the reader chooses to glean from them, the images in “A Noiseless Patient Spider” hold the key to its meaning.
Figures of Speech
The use of figures of speech in the poem is very different than what is found in most poems. There seems to be only two figures of speech in “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” metaphor and symbolism; however, they are very prolonged examples that encompass the whole poem and are essential to its complete understanding. The entire work is essentially one large metaphor between the spider, isolated on its barren promontory, and the speaker’s soul, isolated in the universe. When the speaker describes the spider's plight, he is actually describing his own, this gives the reader a more profound sense of what the author is talking about than if Walt Whitman
had just come out and tried to express his ideas in prose. The bulk of the content of “A Noiseless Patient Spider” has some relation to symbolism, whether it is the symbol itself or an image clarifying the meaning of the symbol or the thing or idea that is being symbolized. The promontory’s “vacant vast surroundings” symbolize the speaker’s feeling of loneliness and isolation from the rest of the world or his inability to connect with others. The filament that the spider launched forth could be a symbol of the speaker’s attempts to find meaning in the universe, or to find someone or something to make some sort of profound connection with. The verbs describing the spider, “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” are themselves symbols of the speaker's seeming satisfaction that he may show to the outside.