Critical Analysis of A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman



Critical Analysis of A Noiseless Patient Spider

The poem can be read in a number of ways resulting in a number of interpretations. However, this is not what is unique to this poem. What is unique to this poem is its overlapping levels and literary devices.

The poem is at once a poem describing a minute section of the life of a spider, and the poet’s philosophical quest. Level one is based in the physical plane. What is described is a natural act, a spider spinning a web atop a cliff or a promontory. Stanza one is completely grounded in the natural world, with an organic existence. The spider reflects the organic, natural world. The poet, however, removes the poem to a higher plane, to the realm of the imaginary in the second stanza. The poet visualizes the musings and seekings of his own soul along the image of the spider. As the poet launches an investigation into his own philosophical musings, the poem moves to the realm of the spiritual. As soon as he connects the image of the spider to his soul, he is forced to think about the meaning of life. Walt Whitman channels one of the most crucial questions of mankind, humanity’s spiritual destination. The poem then becomes a labyrinthine quest for the unknown answer. What is interesting to note is the double metaphor used in the poem. The spider serves as a metaphor for the poet’s soul, and the spider’s filaments serve for the poet’s spiritual investigations. The metaphor is carried on beyond the text.  The spider web becomes the metaphor for the entire poem as well. The poem is constructed as a web. It is only through Whitman’s hints and clues that we can surmise what he is talking about. It is not clearly given to us what he wanted to achieve in this poem, just like it is not clear to us what his soul wants to achieve in his quest for answers. And each point is like a spherical filament that brings us back to a single point in the web, to the question of the meaning of life. It is on this promontory that all three, the spider, the poet (or his soul) and the poem itself, are grounded. Whitman constantly sways between the different levels as he grapples with his own spiritual queries. For the readers, the poem becomes a moving lyric that depicts a spiritual crisis. You can go through the detailed summary of the poem here.

Poetic Devices- Figures of speech:

Stanza 1: A noiseless, patient spider: this is an instance of transferred epithet. The word, ‘noiseless’ is used to indicate the absolute stillness of the spider. Spiders are not noisy creatures, even if they make noise, humans are not attuned to the frequency to catch their sounds; hence, the word is not used literally. It is used to give the semblance that the spider is so still that it doesn’t make any sound. The word ‘patient’ is used to drive home the point that the spider in intent on doing its job and will not stop until it has finished.

The vacant, vast surrounding: this is an instance of alliteration. Alliteration is the use of series of words in a sentence beginning with the same consonant or sound to produce a sense of rhythm.

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself: this is also an instance of alliteration.

Stanza 2: O my Soul: an instance of apostrophe. This is where the speaker addresses a person, who is absent or dead, or an abstract idea or an inanimate object.

Soul: the poet’s soul also symbolizes the collective soul of mankind.

Measureless oceans of space:  an instance of metonymy/synecdoche. The vast space of life and its immensity is compared to the seeming endlessness of oceans.

Seeking the spheres, to connect them:  it is an instance of imagery. The soul seeks the meaning of life. And all his musings, venturing and throwing are attempts towards achieving that end. This attempt is likened to the webs spun by the spider. The poet wishes to connect these web-like, spherical experiences to pave the way of his journey, to create a bridge that will lead him to the answers he is searching for.

Ductile anchor: an instance of juxtaposition. A spider’s web is of high tensile strength and is stretchable. It can withhold extreme duress. And an anchor is universally known for its grounding ability. Both the words indicate the strength and tenacity to stand pressure. However, it is unusual to describe an iron anchor as ductile. This is where Walt Whitman uses his wit and unique point of view to drive home the image of a double-pronged strength.  Both ideas are juxtaposed together to emphasize this aspect of a secure holding.

Gossamer thread you fling: this is a metaphor. The poet’s soul is compared to the spider. The poet undertaking the journey of life is similar to the spider spinning its web. Hence, each step the soul takes or each thought it muses on is akin to secretion of the spider’s filament.

Rhyme Scheme:The poem is divided into two stanzas, each consisting of 5 lines. The poem is written in free verse.  Hence, it forms the following rhyme scheme:- Abcde/fghij.

Central Idea and Theme of A Noiseless Patient Spider

Central Idea of the Poem: The idea that is central to this poem is the vastness of life and at the same its brevity. On the one hand, life is a vast ocean of opportunities and experiences, but on the other hand, it is also short, unpredictable and abrupt. The poem swings between the two sides of life as the poet’s train of thought jumps between these two integral aspects. This poem talks of how life is more than just the daily rituals and how it is a spiritual journey towards a more meaningful and fulfilling existence. The poem also teaches us that although life is vast in its potentiality, it is brief in duration. And this is a thought that haunts the poet subconsciously; hence, he uses the words ‘speeding’, ‘ceaselessly’, to express a kind of inherent haste to finish the task undertaken before time is up.

Theme of the Poem: The concentrated theme of the poem is isolation. Although there are parallel themes such as spiritualism and exploration, it is the sense of solitude that Whitman harps on. Both the spider and the addressee of the poem are portrayed as solitary figures amidst a stark and spacious backdrop. The imagery of the vast nothingness around them is perhaps used by Whitman deliberately to produce a sense of deep isolation. For example, the words, ‘isolated’, ‘vacant’, ‘detached’ reverberate a sense of loneliness. It is not clear whether he is viewing this solitary state as positive or negative. But his stress on this aspect gives us this feeling that this aloneness is necessary to achieve one’s philosophical and/or spiritual destination.

Tone of the Poem and Conclusion

Tone of the Poem: The tone of the poem is meditative at first but as the poem moves towards the second and final stanza, the meditative tone turns into one of earnestness. The poet marks the spider and watches its movements minutely. Hence, the tone takes a meditative stance. However, in the second stanza, as he starts to connect the image of the spider with his own soul, it induces a sense of earnestness in his tone. When his thoughts are turned on himself, the nature of his musings become more urgent, hence, here the tone too acquires a kind of urgency.

Conclusion: It is important to note that in the Leaves of Grass version of the poem, the second word ‘surrounded’ in line, ‘Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space’ was replaced by ‘detached’. This emphasizes isolation as the predominant theme in the poem.  In conclusion, it is a lyric poem with a potent imagery. The poem can be read as a dying man’s rant or as a young explorer’s vision. It is inspirational even while it induces pathos. Lastly, the poem brings together the two significant aspects of life, its immensity and its brevity.

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