Repetition is a huge part of this poem’s style. Words, phrases, and sounds all come rolling in again and again. To us, it sounds a little like waves rolling in on a beach. They are repetitive, evenly spaced, but also a little mysterious – maybe a little wild and dangerous sounding. When you look at the ocean, you might get a feeling of "vacant vast surrounding." Whitman even helps us out by talking about "measureless oceans."
But, there’s more. Read the poem aloud; listen to the sounds that it makes. When you hear "filament, filament, filament" (line 4), you might hear quiet little waves lapping at the shore. In the last two lines, the waves build and come crashing in, one after the other: "Till the bridge… till the ductile anchor… till the gossamer thread" (lines 9-10). Simple repetitions, but they grow together into something more profound. These wave sounds give you the feel of the immense empty space that Whitman wants you to imagine. The repetition of the waves is infinite and beyond our control, and that’s a lot like the work of the spider and the movements of the soul in this poem.
Well, it matters a lot that it’s exactly the same as the poem’s first line. A title always gives a poet an important chance to draw our attention to a particular part of the poem. Here, Whitman uses it to underline the main image, that quiet spider. At first glance, maybe that just seems lazy – like Whitman stayed up late and couldn’t think of a title, so he just slapped the first line on there again and went to bed. But, the spider really matters. It’s a kind of a key to the meaning of more abstract parts about the soul. So, it makes sense that he really wants to burn that character into our brains.
It always helps to think about the other ways Whitman could title the poem. He could give away the whole plot, and call it "The Spider and the Soul." How would this change the feeling of reading the poem? When this poem was first published, it didn’t even have a title. It was just poem number three in a series called "Whispers of Heavenly Death." (For more on this, take a look at the original pages in the link below called: "Images of the Poem’s First Printing"). How might you react to the poem if you read it like that for the first time?
We don’t get a lot of help with the actual setting of this poem. In fact, the only place we hear much about is "a little promontory." Thanks a bunch, Walt – that makes everything clear. But, maybe because he doesn’t give us much help with the setting, this allows us to imagine a new setting which would fit the mood of this poem. So, bear with us here, because we think this poem could easily take place in the middle of outer space. Seriously.
In the first half of the poem, he tells us about the spider and the "vacant vast surrounding" (line 3). In the second half, he imagines his soul surrounded by the "measureless oceans of space" (line 7). So, just think of that spider marooned on an asteroid, trying desperately to reach out and grab something. Then, think of Whitman stuffed into a space suit (beard and all) and cartwheeling through empty space, trying to grab onto something. Then, all of a sudden, a huge alien octopus… sorry, we’ll try not to nerd out here. The bottom line is: we think this poem is as much about isolation, empty spaces, and the absence of a setting, as it is about being in a particular place or time.
All right, Whitman is a genius and all, but, let’s take a step back. Imagine that some guy comes up to you on a bus, and tells you that he was looking at this spider and watching it try to spin a web. OK, not so bad. Then, he tells you how his soul is like a spider, and how it’s inside of him, but also in the middle of space, and how it makes "ductile anchors" to try to hold onto these spheres and make a bridge. This is about where you say, "This is my stop!", and flee in terror. Printed on a page, with Whitman’s name next to it, this poem seems pretty respectable. But, listen to what the speaker really says, and to the way he says it. It’s weird, isn’t it? All that "O my soul" stuff makes him sound like he’s a few screws short.
OK, maybe that’s not fair; maybe there’s nothing wrong with this speaker. But, even if he’s perfectly sane, he has the kind of vision that most of us don’t have, and the way he explains it makes it clear that he sees the world differently than we do. In fact, we’ve got another name for this kind of guy: a prophet. Sometimes they get mistaken for madmen, but they differ in that there is something true and original about their visions. The speaker of this poem doesn’t want to bug you. He really wants you to think about the soul and how it works. He believes that he has a message for mankind. This is probably more what Whitman hopes you think about his speaker. We’re still willing to bet that you wouldn’t hang out for long, if he took the seat next to you on the bus.
There are a few tricky words here, but once you’ve figured out the main image in the poem, it should be smooth sailing. Whitman likes to make his poems clear and accessible. Sometimes, though, he gets so involved in his private imagination that it’s a little hard to follow him. The end of this poem, particularly, is sort of mysterious.
Whitman’s poems almost always burst with excitement and curiosity about the world. That’s not to say that they are happy, but you can usually recognize his infectious energy. This energy spills over and creates an unconventional poetic style that is not too interested in rhyme, meter, and traditional forms.
The poems, like this one, tend too be really personal too. He almost always deals with himself in some way: his own experiences, his mind, his soul, and the ways that they relate to the rest of the world. "Patient Spider" also has a few other classic Whitman themes – he likes nature, and he has a spiritual, but not really a religious, side. He also loves big, fearless moves, like the way he shoots from a tiny example to a really huge idea in this poem. That’s a classic Whitman touch.
As is almost always the case with Whitman, this poem is written in free verse. That means that it doesn’t rhyme, and there’s no set rhythm or meter. This form of poetry was pretty controversial at the time, and for some people, it still is. The big question is: if this doesn’t rhyme or use meter, why is it a poem? Is it just a series of sentences broken up into shorter lines?
Now, there are elements here which fit our definition of poetic style. Repetition is a key one. Whitman repeats words like "filament" in a way which draws attention to their sounds. This technique is pretty different from the ones which we find in novels, for example. It is an open and personal question, though. Does this piece fit with your idea about what a poem ought to be?
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
This adorable arachnid is the title character of the poem. A description of its web-building dominates the first five lines, and its image lingers throughout the poem.
Here’s the other half of the poem’s big comparison. In the last five lines, we switch over to the spiritual side, although the image of the spider remains important.
We’re pretty low on sex here. If you find spiders sexy, that’s fine with us, but we don’t think that’ll change the rating much.