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.
Spider Web Video
Animation showing the stages of a spider building its web. You don’t know how hard it was not to make a joke about this being "on the web." Or, did we just do that? Hehe. Sorry.
Creepy Whitman Animation
This is such a weird idea, but we kind of love it. Some guy animated a picture of Whitman to make it look like he’s reciting one of his poems. Trust us, it’s pretty strange. On the other hand, some people think the recording you hear is really Whitman’s voice, which is sort of exciting.
"America" – MP3
Here’s an MP3 of that famous audio recording of the poem "America," thought to be read by Walt Whitman himself. This recording came from an old wax cylinder.
Pictures of Whitman
More than a hundred pictures of the man himself. You can decide whether you prefer the dashing young dandy, or the bearded old wizard.
Images of the Poem’s First Printing
This will show you how the poem looked in its original printing in The Broadway, A London Magazine, October 1868. Note the creepy title for this series of poems: "Whispers of Heavenly Death."
Walt Whitman Archive
We pointed you to parts of this site earlier, but here’s the whole thing. A great resource on Whitman’s life, work, etc.