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A Noiseless Patient Spider
Walt Whitman
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.


Well, we’re back after our summer hiatus! We will bring you a new poem to ponder every other week this fall.
The name Walt Whitman is synonymous with American poetry. Whitman’s importance was mostly unrecognized in his own lifetime—though Emerson, one of his heroes, described Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Still, his contemporaries could not have imagined that Whitman would come to be hailed as “America’s world poet—a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare.” (Poetry Foundation)
Whitman’s description of America in the introduction to Leaves of Grass is also a pretty good description of himself and his work:  “Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied. . . . . Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves. Here the performance disdaining the trivial… spreads with crampless and flowing breadth and showers its prolific and splendid extravagance.”
Whitman’s poetic voice was utterly unique. He did not use rhyme—instead, he wrote in long, flowing cadences, influenced by the poetry of the Bible. His subject was ordinary people, and he wrote with exuberant frankness about every aspect of human life, both spiritual and physical. That frankness got him into trouble sometimes!
I think the short poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” included in Leaves of Grass, is a good introduction to Whitman and his style.
The poem starts with close observation. Whitman seldom disappears from his poems—there is almost always a strong “I,” a compelling personal voice. “I mark’d,” a spider, he says, “on a little promontory… isolated.” The spider stands in the midst of a “vacant vast,” surrounded, it would seem, by nothingness. But nevertheless the little creature explores its world: “it launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself, / Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.” The spider patiently finds connections and builds its web.
In the second stanza, Whitman moves from spiders to souls—it’s a leap that only Whitman could make so effortlessly! Like the spider, the soul is surrounded by immensity—Whitman wonderfully evokes the sense of how small and alone we can feel in the universe: “surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space.” Like the spider on its promontory, the soul restlessly reaches out in every direction: “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,” until at last “the bridge you will need be form’d,” “till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere.” It’s all about connection: the spider connects with its environment, patiently and creatively spinning forth filaments “out of itself.” And the soul must do the same: “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking.” The soul is not alone, any more than the spider is. Through the process of exploration, we find connection, and the thread we fling catches, becoming a “bridge.”
This poem speaks of Whitman’s approach to poetry and to life: “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking.” The creative process is about flinging something of one’s own being into the unknown, like the spider spinning the filament out of its very self.
I think the poem can also be read as a meditation on the spiritual life. Whitman urges his soul to be active, not passive. He does not simply wait to be connected with, but launches out again and again in search of connection. I’m reminded of the words of Jesus: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Jesus urges us to be active in our spiritual life, to reach out to God constantly, asking, seeking, knocking—or, in Whitman’s words, “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking”—like that noiseless, patient spider.




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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