Study Guide

A Noiseless Patient Spider Speaker

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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.

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