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A Noiseless Patient Spider
A Poem by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Themes
The Poem as a Metaphor
Structure
Format: Free Verse
Text and Notes
Questions and Essay Topics
Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.. 2008
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Type of Work and Year Written

"A Noiseless Patient Spider" is a lyric poem. Walt Whitman wrote the poem in the 1860s and published it in the 1871-1872 edition of Leaves of Grass. Leaves of Grass was a continually growing collection of his work that began with the publication of the first edition in 1855. The version of the poem on this page is from the 1881-1882 edition of Leaves of Grass. Click here to access all the editions of Leaves of Grass published before his death.

Themes

"A Noiseless Patient Spider" develops the following themes:

The quest, or exploration, for meaning and knowledge in the vastness of the universe. 
The courage to venture forth alone into unknown territory. 
The patience to build a plexus that links one stopping place to the next. 
The perseverance to carry on until the “gossamer thread” (line 8) connects to a goal.
The Poem as a Metaphor

The poem compares a spider to a human. Each creature tirelessly constructs bonds to its surroundings. A spider spins silken thread to span a void. A human builds ships, airplanes, bridges. Sometimes he crosses a void with a telescope (as Galileo did) or reaches new plateaus of knowledge with a question (as Socrates did) or a theory (as Einstein did).

Structure

The poem contains two five-line stanzas, the first consisting of one long sentence. The subject is the pronoun I (line 2), and the main verb is the compound mark'd (line 2) and mark'd (line 3).  The second stanza is one long group of words requiring I marked to be carried over unstated from the first stanza in order to make the word group a complete sentence. If inserted, I marked would occur after And (line 6) or soul (line 6). The poet achieves a measure of balance between the two stanzas with the words unreeling and speeding in the first stanza and musing, venturing, throwing, and seeking in the second stanza. He also balances isolated in the first stanza (line 1) with detached in the second stanza (line 2) and vacant vast surrounding in the first stanza (line 2) with measureless oceans of space in the second stanza (line 2).

Format: Free Verse

Whitman wrote "A Noiseless Patient Spider" in free verse—also called vers libre, a French term. Free verse generally has no metrical pattern or end rhyme. However, it may contain patterns of another kind, such as repetition to impart emphasis, balance, and rhythm. For example, Whitman's poem uses mark'd twice (lines 2 and 3), filament three times (line 4), O my soul twice (lines 6 and 10), and till three times (lines 9 and 10). Free verse may also contain conventional figures of speech. Among the figures of speech in "A Noiseless Patient Spider" are the following:

Alliteration in line 3 (vacant vast), line 4 (forth filament, filament, filament), lines 6 and 7 (stand, surrounded, detached).
Anaphora in lines 9 and 10 (repetition of till).
Apostrophe in the second stanza. (The speaker addresses his soul.) 
Metaphor in the second stanza. (The speaker compares himself to a spider.)
Metaphor/Personification in the second stanza. (The speaker compares his soul to a person.)
Metaphors that compare the bond that the speaker forms to a bridge (line 9), the attachment he forms to an anchor (line 9), and his exploration to a gossamer thread (line 10). 


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A Noiseless Patient Spider
From the 1891-1892 Edition of Leaves of Grass
By Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Text

A noiseless patient spider, 
I mark’d where on a little promontory1 it stood, isolated, 
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament,2 out of itself, 
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 5

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 ductile3 anchor hold, 
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my Soul. 10

Notes

1....promontory: Land or rock formation above ground level that projects outward toward the sea.
2....filament: Thread, fiber, tendril.
3....ductile: malleable, stretchable; capable of being shaped without breaking
 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1....Write a poem in free verse on a subject of your choice. 
2....Write an essay that depicts yourself or someone you know as ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them (line 8).
3....Do you sometimes feel that you are surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space (line 7)? Explain your answer.
5....List several "gossamer threads" you have flung to achieve a goal.

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