This is a short, fun poem from the middle of Walt Whitman’s career. Even though it’s only ten lines long, it picks up a lot of the big themes in his writing, and it has a lot of depth, which you don’t necessarily see at first. By this point (1868), it had been more than ten years since the first publication of Whitman's famous "Leaves of Grass." He wasn’t everyone’s favorite poet, but he was established enough that he could get poems published in magazines. This particular poem showed up in The Broadway, A London Magazine (sounds classy, doesn’t it?). In the magazine format, it appears in a group of five poems with the oh-so-spooky title "Whispers of Heavenly Death." In spite of that creepy association, though, this poem shows Whitman in his prime. In just ten lines, you can tell that he’s full of the energy, imagination, and excitement which have made him so popular for so many years.
When it comes to really good and really important American poets, Walt Whitman is right at the top of the pile. He’s influenced all kinds of other writers and thinkers, partly because he’s interesting, but also because he can just be a lot of fun.
If you think that poetry can be a little stuffy, or that poets can kind of be full of themselves, reading Whitman’s poems will seem like a breath of fresh air. OK, maybe it’s more like standing in a wind tunnel of fresh air. He almost always skips the rhyme, the meter, and all those other fancy techniques – and dives right in, practically exploding with excitement. His poems jump all over the place, talking about his body, his soul, the people around him, the world, the universe.
To tell you the truth, Whitman can get a little carried away from time to time. Some of his famous poems, like "Song of Myself," are long enough to be short novels, and cover a lot of ground. That’s not to say those poems aren’t great, too; they’re definitely worth checking out. Think of "A Noiseless Patient Spider" as a perfectly cooked appetizer – just a taste when you’re not in the mood for a much bigger, heavier meal. But, just because this poem is a quick read doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot going on. This is definitely a master chef at work.
"A Noiseless Patient Spider" is a good example of what makes Whitman great, especially the way he moves from close observation of a tiny thing to taking on the whole universe. Check out the way he turns a simple, carefully chosen image into a really beautiful metaphor for the human soul. Not bad for 10 lines, huh? Whitman fills this poem with his curiosity, his infectious excitement, and his love for the world. Here’s a chance to get to know a major poet, and it won’t take you all day to wade through it.