A Short Analysis of Walt Whitman’s ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’

A summary of a short Whitman poem

‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ is a little gem of a poem among Walt Whitman’s oeuvre. In this post we’d like to share the poem, and offer a few words of analysis. What does Whitman mean by using the ‘noiseless patient spider’ when depicting his own soul?

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.

In summary, ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ is divided into two stanzas: the first observes the ‘noiseless patient spider’ of the poem’s title, and the second considers the poet’s own soul and the way it is undertaking a similar attempt to build ‘gossamer’ bridges between things, much as the spider builds a web.

This connection between the spider’s activities and the speaker’s soul – both of which are patiently yet desperately striving to achieve a link or bridge between themselves and something else – is reinforced by the grammar in the opening two lines:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated

This is like the common grammatical solecism known as the dangling participle (example: ‘Upon reading him, Dickens seems to be a great novelist’ – where the grammar of the sentence makes it sound as though Dickens, and not the critic, is the one doing the reading). ‘A noiseless patient spider, I’: this is ambiguous, since that opening line could refer to the thing being observed (which does, indeed, turn out to be the case) or to the ‘I’ doing the observing (where ‘noiseless patient spider’ would be used metaphorically to suggest the speaker’s patience and silence in observing).

Although ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ is unrhymed (as we’d expect from free-verse pioneer Walt Whitman), the final two lines move towards rhyme with hold/soul, as if suggesting a gossamer-thin bridge between the lines of the poem has been formed (lines of poetry, but the spider’s threads are lines as well, of course). This is imperfect and delicate, though: not the solid and unbreakable rhyme of, say, hold/sold but merely hold/soul. It is not the firm rhyme of an Alexander Pope couplet, like this one from An Essay on Man:

The spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine!
Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.

Whitman hasn’t found the way to forge such connections yet, but the half-rhyme in that final ‘couplet’ suggests that such a coupling may be possible after all. ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ is a fine short poem by one of American literature’s great pioneers of free verse.

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