18 pages 36 minutes read

Walt Whitman

A Noiseless Patient Spider

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1868

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Summary and Study Guide


At the emotional center of Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” (1868) is a most perplexing question: How exactly does a Transcendentalist die? For more than 40 years, Whitman had been a passionate advocate for the radical doctrine of reconceiving the natural world into a single dazzling organism, a kind of cosmic energy field. The universe’s very materiality—everything from rocks and plants to stars and planets—reveals its spiritual essence and, theoretically, denies significance to the death of any individual element. Although Whitman composed a version of this brief lyric more than 30 years before his death, in positioning the poem in what Whitman so dramatically termed the “deathbed” edition of his collection Leaves of Grass in 1891, Whitman revisits and, in turn, reaffirms his unironic youthful optimism just months before his death at age 72 after more than a decade coping with numerous debilitating health crises.

Whitman uses his own early poem to find reassurance. Through the agency of his hungry and ever-restless soul, he is connected to the cosmos itself, like a web shooting out of an industrious and busy spider. In doing so, Whitman affirms that the terrors over individual mortality are little more than the hobgoblins of timid little minds. It is, in fact, death alone that completes the translation of the body, glorious but corruptible, into that transcendental reality.

Poet Biography

In an era when the average life expectancy at birth was just over 40, Walt Whitman did not perceive the purpose and direction of his life until he was nearly 30. Despite barely finishing sixth grade, Whitman, an accomplished autodidact, was a voracious reader and had been deeply moved by “The Poet,” an 1844 essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson that decried the lack of an American voice in poetry. Emerson chided his new nation for refusing to recognize the creative freedoms represented by its break with Britain now more than a half century in the past. This new nation, Emerson argued, demanded a new kind of poet. At the time, Whitman was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he wrote provocative editorials supporting progressive causes, including abolition. He began crafting bold verse that did not sound or look like poems, their lines irregular, their sounds complex and musical, their rhythms subtle and unforced. Whitman organized 12 of these poems into what would become the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855.

Although the initial reaction was uncertain, as readers and reviewers alike were baffled over how to respond to Whitman’s daring and eccentric open verse, over the next four decades, Whitman worked and reworked Leaves of Grass, adding to it, revising and reordering the poems in subsequent editions, arguing that poetry was organic and always growing. After the Civil War, two updates of Leaves of Grass were published, and the collection expanded to more than 300 interconnected poems. With his white beard, iconic hat, and gentle eyes, he became one of America’s most photographed celebrities. Given his poems’ complex musicality and Whitman’s own gift for performance, enriched by his love of opera, Whitman was a sensation on the Lyceum circuit, traveling as far as the Mississippi River, giving lectures and readings to packed houses.

Whitman, now assuming the role of America’s Poet, castigated this America as spiritually enervated, materialistic and shallow, its arts bankrupt of passion and authenticity—he counseled reclaiming a grand vision of oneness as the country’s last, best hope. Then, in 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke that left the left side of his body largely paralyzed. Following this incident, he left a government job in Washington to live with his brother, George, a successful engineer, in Camden, New Jersey. In short order, Whitman’s mother died. Her influence on her son had been profound, and Whitman spiraled into depression.

In 1876, America’s centennial year, Whitman was hailed as the country’s greatest living poet, the unofficial poet of democracy, and a new edition of Leaves of Grass became part of the nation’s year-long celebration. When his brother retired in 1884, Whitman took his modest cache of royalties (a little over $1,200) and, at the age of 65, finally bought his first home, an unprepossessing two-story clapboard home along the railroad tracks on Mickle Street in Camden.

Over the next several years, even as his health deteriorated, Whitman found himself the center of a kind of cult-like following among America’s younger poets, who discovered in Whitman’s unconventional poetry—with its celebration of the spiritual dimension of the organic world—a clear rejection of the dull middle-class values of Gilded Age America and a welcome tonic to the burgeoning school of dreary dishwater realism. Trips to Camden by young writers became more like pilgrimages. Whitman societies sprang up, mystic clubs with elaborate initiation rites, illustrated psalm books, and complex secret handshakes, with Whitman less a poet and more an American saint, or saint-enough.

After years of heroic resistance to a host of physical debilities, Whitman died on March 26, 1892. When the word of Whitman’s death spread, the public reaction was unprecedented for an American poet. Thousands would take the day off work to pack the shallow hillside in Harleigh Cemetery as Whitman’s body was interred in a 650-square-foot mausoleum he had designed (and paid for) himself. It bore no elaborate verse inscription, not even birth and death dates—its simple inscription testifying to the persona that Walter Elias Whitman, Jr., had conjured: “Walt Whitman.”

Poem Text

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.

Whitman, Walt. “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” 1868. Poetry Foundation.


The poem reveals the curious eye of the speaker, who notices a tiny spider diligently spinning its web. The speaker watches on as the spider stands on a tiny “promontory” (Line 2), perhaps a rock or a leaf, before launching gobs of “filament, filament, filament” (Line 4). Alone and solitary, the spider connects by shooting out its filament webbing and attaching it to objects in the “vacant vast surrounding” (Line 3), achieving a kind of bonding. The filament material, the speaker notes, comes from the spider; it is “out of itself” (Line 5), suggesting the intimate connection between the spider and its webbing and the thing to which it attaches.

In the second stanza, the poem turns noticeably theological. The speaker's soul explores the implications of the cosmos, shooting out its own kind of webbing. In exploring the cosmos, “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them” (Line 8), the soul achieves its own connections to that vastness. Like the spider’s web, which is designed to hold fast and firm, the soul in its reaching outward into the cosmos becomes a “ductile anchor” (Line 9), flexible yet enduring.