"A noiseless, patient spider" (line 1)
This is an easy one. First line, first image: all about nature. Well, maybe. Even though this poem definitely starts out in the natural world, there are already some hints that humans are here. For example, "patient" is definitely a word that you use to describe a human, or at least an animal with fewer than eight legs. To be patient, you sort of have to be capable of being impatient. And maybe spiders are, but we don’t know. Already, the natural images are mixed with human descriptions.
"On a little promontory it stood" (line 2)
The spider’s little perch is definitely a place in nature, but Whitman doesn’t say much about it. In some nature poems we might have green rolling hills, fluffy clouds, etc. Here, we don’t even find out if the promontory is dirt, grass, or rock. Whitman strips away most descriptions of the natural setting. He mostly seems interested in what this spider does, and how that compares to human life.
"It launched forth filament, filament, filament" (line 4)
For all the lack of information about the place, Whitman is pretty specific about this one thing which the spider does. He observes really closely, and, for a while, he sounds more like a scientist than a poet. The idea of men observing and learning from animals is a key theme here, and one of the big ways that man and the natural world tie together in this poem.
"you O my soul where you stand" (line 6)
Things get a little bit trickier here. We see Whitman change gears, and talk about something new. This soul is a part of him, not outside in nature, like the spider. But, does he act like he’s talking to himself? In some ways, his soul seems just as foreign – almost harder to understand than a spider. He really tries to blur the lines between inside and outside, me and you, human and animal.
"the gossamer thread you fling" (line 10)
By this point, we already know that Whitman thinks his soul is like a spider. But, here’s where he really comes out with it. He takes a human thing (the soul) and combines it with a spider thing (gossamer thread). The fact that he does this in the last line lets us know that the idea of combining human and natural themes is a central point of the poem.
"And you O my soul where you stand" (line 6)
It’s easy to talk about a spider. We all know more or less what they look like, and we see them ourselves. It’s even easy to talk to a spider, even if it won’t talk back. But, what about talking about your soul? Who knows what that looks like? Then, how about talking to your soul? What are we supposed to imagine is going on here? Now, we’re not saying that there haven’t been poems about the soul before, or that these things can’t be done. Just think about what a big shift this is: from a rather simple nature poem into a much bigger, weirder, and murkier world. Like his usual modus operandi, Whitman just jumps right in, taking us from spiders to spirituality in one line.
"Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing" (line 8)
Whether or not you believe in the idea of a soul, the standard concept is pretty familiar. Mostly, it sits there; maybe, it yearns a little, or something like that. But, look at all the stuff that Whitman’s soul does. Not only is it thinking (or "musing"), but it’s going forward ("venturing"), and even getting some exercise ("throwing"), like the spider. It also does all these things constantly, without resting. Here, we get a taste of the spirituality of the poem. It’s unusual, exciting, and constantly active. The spiritual world Whitman describes isn’t quiet and full of praying, but wild and buzzing with movement and work and ideas.
Till the bridge you will need be form’d" (line 9)
This soul needs to be connected. It isn’t a part of the world right now, but it wants to be. Some people think of the soul as forever separated from the world, but that’s not what we hear about here. Or, maybe it isn’t a connection with the world that this soul wants, but something else – like a connection with other souls. But, check out the words in these few lines: "connect," "anchor," "bridge," "hold," "catch." The dream in this poem is that isolation will end, and that the spirit will connect to something outside of itself.
"On a little promontory it stood isolated" (line 2)
This line puts the idea of isolation right out there. Thinking of the spider as not just alone, but "isolated," gives us an emotional connection to this little critter. It makes him a part of something bigger, rather than just a spider doing something. But, how exactly are we supposed to feel about this isolation? Is it a bad thing, a sort of loneliness, or is it more like solitude, a peaceful separation from the rest of the world?
"the vacant vast surrounding" (line 3)
Here, again, Whitman picks an intense word that he doesn’t necessarily need to use. The space around the spider is clearly big, but why does it have to be vacant, too? With that word dropped in there, we get feelings of isolation and hopelessness in the spider’s work. He tries to reach out with his web and hold onto something, but, what if there’s nothing around him? Differences in size also help create this isolating effect. Whitman takes something which everyone knows is tiny (a spider), and puts it in a "vast surrounding." This makes the emotional effect of isolation even more intense.
"Surrounded, detached in measureless oceans of space" (line 7)
It turns out that the speaker’s soul shares this isolation with the spider. This line almost exactly mirrors lines two and three above. Again, the choice of words is important. Not only is the soul separate, it is "detached" from anything else. Like the spider, it is an island in the middle of nothingness. Here, the feeling of separation is even more intense. The surrounding space is not just vast, but "measureless."
"seeking the spheres to connect them" (line 8)
Here’s the good part. We’ve said a lot about how the spider and the soul are alone, but we haven’t said much about what that means. Will they always be isolated in this way? At the end, the poem suggests that, perhaps, they won’t. The whole idea of this web spinning is that it’s hopeful. The spider tries to grab something, but blows it again and again. It remains patient, though, and the soul does too. Because they keep trying, it’s still possible for them to connect. Does this start to sound like an inspirational poster? Is this really just about not giving up on your dreams? Maybe, but keep in mind that neither the spider nor the soul gets what it wants – at least, not in this poem. He leaves us in suspense, and the feeling of spooky isolation lingers at the end.
"I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood" (line 2)
There are lots of good and obvious examples of exploration in this poem, but let’s start somewhere a little different. Keep in mind that the speaker of the poem is exploring when he looks at the spider. We listen to him tell us about a discovery he made. This isn’t a major trip, but it is an important one, and the discovery that he brings home gives the reason for the poem to exist.
"Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding" (line 3)
The spider is an explorer, and Whitman says as much. When it throws out those filaments, it looks for new territory. This is a metaphor for all kinds of explorations. Think of the ships that explored the world, and connected countries which were previously isolated. The spider sends out threads that are just like those ships. It launches them into the air, to see if they land on something.
"Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing" (line 8)
The soul and the spider share a lot of things in this poem. So, it isn’t too surprising to find out that the soul is an explorer, too. When it is "venturing," it’s doing what the spider does, exploring unknown territories and discovering new things.
"Till the bridge you need be formed" (line 9)
This is the basic goal of all explorations. We have many other reasons to explore new places: maybe we want to learn, or conquer, or make maps, or kill. But, we always make a bridge. We connect two things previously separate, which were isolated from each other. This is definitely something we share with animals, and Whitman makes a whole poem out of this comparison. Spiders, humans, pigs – we all want to make bridges with our minds, our bodies, and maybe our souls. A little too heartwarming? Sorry, Whitman isn’t afraid to be a cheesy optimist sometimes. We’ll let you decide, though, if the happy side wins or loses. Does exploration turn out to be exciting and rewarding here, or scary, dangerous and futile?