Walt Whitman, the author of “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” is known around the world for the uniquely American literature he published as a poet. Whitman was born in Long Island, New York on the last day of May in 1819, and worked as a printer’s apprentice while a young boy, after which he became a teacher for a small, local school. Eventually becoming a journalist, he created his own newspaper and began a career of writing. Recognized for his wide use of free verse, he helped the literary landscape of his time to a change of form. His poetry first became public with the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855, a collection that was condemned as offensive by many. He died March 26, 1892, and was buried in a tomb he himself had built and designed (Walt).
“A Noiseless Patient Spider” describes first a spider, standing alone on a rock extending out above a body of water, or an outlaying of lower rocks. Never tiring, the spider explores its large surroundings by shooting its web into the unknown. As the second stanza begins we are informed that it is addressed to the speaker’s soul by, “And you O my soul” (line 6). The voice is shifting to address its soul, which is entirely surrounded by an endless emptiness. The soul is alone, and is ever thinking, taking risks, and searching for something else in the emptiness to connect with. The work of the soul will only be complete once it has found and formed a connection, despite weakness of the thread. The speaker could be anyone with a soul, while the audience is that person’s soul.
The rhetorical situation seems to be contemplation about one’s own loneliness or search for meaning. Perhaps the speaker is watching a spider and reflecting on the similarities between humanity and the explorations of arachnids. Whitman’s use of a lonely, albeit tireless, spider is a marvelous choice of imagery that invokes rich feelings of contemplation, hope, self-awareness, and simple fascination in the reader.
That imagery is then used to capture the speaker’s feelings on the state of a soul through metaphor. The spider’s actions are understood easily, as they are literal happenings taken from nature. However, the state of the soul is less easily described, and so is compared to a spider. The poem features significant use of metaphor, and examining that poetic device reveals the meaning of the poem in its entirety. The whole first stanza’s subject, a spider, is compared to a human soul, the subject of the second stanza. The words in each stanza reflect each other: The “vacant vast surrounding” (line 3) of the spider becomes “measureless oceans of space” (line 7) encompassing the speaker’s soul. The launched filament of the spider is comparable to a person’s attempts to reach out of a wall of isolation, or ignorance. It is by the metaphorical comparisons that the poem links its beginning imagery to the thought-provoking rhetorical situation.
I find it quite easy, and additionally enjoyable, to relate to this particular poem of Whitman’s. It leads me to ponder just how similar I am to a spider, and it is surprising how far the metaphor extends. With the world ever changing around me, my relatively fragile existence must find constancy. My consciousness is set adrift among so vast an unknown any true reflection reveals an existence insignificant and irrelevant to the designs of the universe. And, like the patient spider, it is up to me to continue searching, desperately venturing, until I may but catch on to some small thing of true value in such an ever expansive world.
“Walt Whitman.” Poets.org: From the Academy of American Poets. 2010. Web. 10 October 2010.
Whitman, Walt. “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” The Seagull Reader: Poems. Ed. Joseph Kelly. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 333. Print.