In Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”, he uses several literary devices to convey his ideas of transcendentalism, focusing on the power of human connections and the need for a community within the soul. He does so by comparing the struggle of a lonely spider to his own soul’s anguish, both of them are trapped in a world teeming with possibilities but yet, they are alone, constantly searching for ways to make their mark on the world. In this essay, I will be focusing on the use of personification, comparisons, and imagery to bring Whitman’s transcendentalist ideas into focus.
Throughout the first stanza, Whitman relies on personification to express his transcendental ideas of needing a community and a sense of direction. Whitman begins to express this moral dilemma of isolation and existentialism with the very title of the poem, giving the spider a human attribute, patience. This subtle yet deliberate move allows the reader to consider putting themselves in the spider’s shoes, surrounded by an intimidating amount of potential connections. The spider faces a difficult choice, it seeks a stable foundation to begin its web but, it doesn’t know where to begin as its environment is daunting.
By comparison, Whitman states that the soul wants the exact same thing, it needs a foundation to build on and to do so it needs human connections to establish itself exactly like the spider, waiting for an opportune moment to build its web. The first stanza describes the suffering of the spider exploring its surroundings, seeking for meaning to its life, as shown in line 3, ”Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding.” The spider is patiently looking for ways to explore its surroundings and once it finally finds it, the spider flares out in a flurry of activity, rapidly building its web and fulfilling its life work.
This is evidenced in line 4, ”It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,” and in line 5,” Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.” The repetition of “filament” in line 4 emphasises the climax of the spider’s patience to build its web and line 5 further details the spider’s life work, which is, of course, its web. In the second stanza, Whitman uses comparisons to tie together the fate of the spider to the needs of his soul. He starts out by saying,” And you O my soul where you stand, Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space.” (line 6-7)
His soul is wandering among everlasting nothingness, yearning for something, anything to connect to. Whitman then goes on to make an astute observation that the human soul needs to be connected to something to be satisfied, which ties in perfectly to his transcendental idea of what the soul is searching for, which is to be connected. He then describes the spider, patiently waiting for the right time so that it can start building its web. “Till the bridge, you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold.” (line 9) Once the soul finds something to grab onto, ”Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere,” (line 10) it solidifies it and connects it to something else and so on, until it’s built a web of connections to form its sense of community.
Through personification, Whitman shows us that the soul wants to belong to somewhere, to someplace so that it may become whole. Whitman also uses imagery to forge the connection between the spider and his soul. This imagery allows the reader to further connect to the struggles of the spider which later, translates to the struggles of the soul. By doing so, Whitman strings together a web of connections between the first and second stanza of the poem.
First, Whitman helps us visualize the “noiseless patient spider…[on] a little promontory [in which it] stood isolated… [figuring out] how to explore [its] vacant vast surrounding.” (lines 1-3) This gives the reader a clear idea of what the spider is doing, standing all by itself on a piece of land separated by the rest, figuring out what to do in its environment. This mental image connects to line 7 of the poem, “Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,” which shows the reader that the speaker is isolated and feels disconnected from reality.
These images tell us that the speaker is trying to deal with loneliness and is desperately searching for a way to make sense of his community, shown by,” Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.” (line 8) Through this extensive use of imagery, Whitman allows us to picture the spider during its quest and connect to the soul, representing the transcendentalist idea that nature holds many, if not all, solutions to life’s problems.
In Walt Whitman’s poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” we are tossed into the almost infuriating process of web building, as the process forces us to blindly fling our “threads” around until it finally catches on to something. Whitman’s shows this through the use of several carefully placed literary devices which express his Transcendental ideas for, a need for community and to seek solutions in nature. Although painful, it is because of web building that we are able to satiate our soul’s need for community and to resolve our primordial need for camaraderie.