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.
Line 1: The image of the quiet, hard-working spider drives the poem. Once we have the picture of the first stages of its web-building in our heads, the rest of the poem starts to fall into place. When the speaker describes the spider as "patient," that’s personification, since the speaker uses a human quality to describe a non-human thing.
Line 3: Whitman really want us to pick up on how isolated this spider is. When he describes the space around the spider as "vacant, vast," the alliteration of those two lines makes this stand out in our minds.
Line 4: Here, Whitman focuses our attention on the other important quality of the spider: the fact that he’s a hard worker. The repetition of the word "filament" matches with the repetition of the spider’s actions. The poem both describes and does the spider’s actions. Alliteration is key here, too. See how "forth filament, filament, filament" repeats the "f" sound four times? He really wants us to notice that repetition. Think about the sound of that "f," too. We know that the shooting web of the spider doesn’t make a noise that we can hear, but, if it did, it might be a rushing, hissing sound – like a long "f" repeated again and again. So, in just a few words, we get the description, the action, and the sound of the spider’s web spinning.
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.
Line 6: Here’s where Whitman turns toward the soul. He introduces it by calling it directly by name, like you would a person. When you talk directly to an idea in a poem, it’s called an apostrophe. It’s an old poetic trick, and Whitman uses it. The use of the word "O" is common with this technique. Here, it’s used to make the soul a living, active presence in the poem.
Line 8: Just like he did with the spider, Whitman makes his soul an almost-human character. Now, this is a trickier example, since the soul might technically be part of a human being. Still, the way it muses, ventures and throws all by itself suggests that this is a personification of the soul.
Line 10: Whitman saves the best for last here. When he uses the word "gossamer," he pulls out a pretty spidery term. The gossamer thread makes us think of the spider’s strings, and it sews up the extended metaphor that is the whole point of this poem. Whitman never says, "My soul is like a spider," but the way he places these ideas next to each other, and the similarity in the descriptions, does the job just fine.