A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d 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 them,
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.
Walt Whitman remains today a very important figure in American poetry. His collection, called Leaves of Grass, contains over 400 poems, one of which is “A Noiseless, Patient Spider”, from a sub-group of poetry that spoke of the state of the soul.
Walt Whitman never subscribed to any particular religious faith, and this agnosticism is shown in his poetry. In this particular poem, we are looking through Walt Whitman’s mind at a spider, stranded on a rock, and “exploring the vast, vacant surrounding” (3). The spider continuously throws out filaments of web, hoping that the strands will connect to something
In the second part of the poem, Walt Whitman proceeds to turn from the spider and speak to his own soul, using the spider’s behavior as a mirror of the own actions of his soul. When people speak of the soul, it’s usually in regards to spirituality and man’s search for God, and there are no indications that Walt Whitman is expressing anything different here.
His soul is also “surrounded”, yet “detached, in measureless oceans of space” (7) – a circumstance that many in modern life can relate to. How common is it for a person to be surrounded with others, yet detached from emotional connections to others, detached from God, or from anything that brings meaning to living?
His soul’s loneliness exercises that same sense of continual striving and purpose, but the busyness is without true expectation of an effective end. All of the “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking” in order to form a “bridge” (8-9) is seeking intimacy, but with what? Even Walt Whitman admits in the end that his goal is a connection with a nebulous “somewhere”. The poetry communicates the expectation of an end to all the busy seeking, but has no idea where that end will be.
Being Walt Whitman, the poetry is composed in free verse, with no form of meter or rhyme. This form is effective in creating a sense of flowing formlessness, which lends more of an idea of the spider (and thus the soul) being lost, without being enclosed in any pre-existing form. The imagery of water, such as “measureless oceans of space” (7) also adds to the sense of flowing without direction or aim.
The verb forms of the poem are often shortened without need – mark’d, launch’d, form’d – suggesting to the mind that something is missing in Walt Whitman’s soul, who is making these observations.
Walt Whitman didn’t invent free form poetry, but he wielded it with expertness to communicated passionate ideas and left a strong influence on later generations of writers. His sense of loneliness and isolation – being alone in a crowd of people, detached from meaningful connections with others, or with God, continuously searching for intimacy with others, for truth, for something solid to hang onto – continues to resonate with readers today.