Here’s where we meet the "main character" in this poem.
This line is exactly the same as the title, which means that, when we’re reading through the poem, the first line is essentially repeated. This has a really important effect. One of the simplest ways to emphasize something is just to say it twice. By the time you finish this first line, the image of a spider is firmly planted in your mind.
Beyond that, there are particular things about this spider that Whitman wants us to know. Take a look at those two words: "noiseless" and "patient."
Now, noiseless is easy, since it pretty well describes most spiders. In fact, if you meet a spider big enough to make noise, you need to back away very slowly and then… run!
There might be one more thing to notice about this. A spider must make some noise; it’s just too quiet for us to hear, right? This only matters because it starts to give us an idea of who is seeing this spider. Already, we can tell that something much bigger is looking at this creature.
This point is emphasized by the next word, "patient." When we say this about a person, we mean that they are calm, willing to wait, etc.
Now, we can guarantee you that no one who has ever lived knows how a spider "feels." This spider might be noiseless and cranky, or bored, or feel nothing at all. When a poet gives an animal a human characteristic like that, it’s called personification, and it says a lot about how he wants us to see this spider.
Already, just a line into this poem, and, mostly thanks to these two words, we have a lot of information. We have a clue about who is looking at this spider, and how they want us to feel about it.
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Whitman does like to get a little fancy with his word choice, so let’s start with some definitions.
In this line, "I mark’d" is just an old-fashioned way of saying "I saw" or "I noticed."
A promontory means a piece of ground that sticks out, like a little cliff or a ledge.
Don’t let that "I" sneak by you, either. That’s the speaker of the poem, quietly introducing himself. He could have stayed behind the scenes, and we would have assumed that someone was watching and describing the events, but, instead, he chooses to peek out.
So, now, we have all the basic physical elements of the poem. There are two characters (the watcher and the one being watched), as well as a description of the setting.
We also get a better sense of the poem’s mood in this line. The word "isolated" is an interesting choice. It’s definitely a little stronger than some of the other words Whitman could have used, like "by itself" or "alone." He even could have left the word out entirely, and the line would still make sense. With the word "isolated" there, we start to think about loneliness, separation, being an outcast, and all that depressing stuff.
With just a few words, we turn this spider into a tragic hero. OK, maybe that’s too much, but we definitely know this isn’t "just a spider."
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
Whitman keeps up observing the spider here.
Basically, over these three lines, he describes how the spider lays down the initial bridge which will become the foundation for its web. This takes a lot of trying, and the spider keeps shooting out webs into empty space. It’s using them to explore the area, and hopefully to attach them onto something solid so that it can start to build its web.
Now, we’re not scientists, and neither was Walt. But, apparently, he was a good observer, because this really is how some spiders build their webs. (For more on that, check out the "Videos" section, and look at the animation in the link called "Spider Web Video").
In addition to telling us how this works, Whitman really wants us to focus on what a lonely job web-building is. In line 3, he describes the space around as "vacant vast."
These words, with their repeated "v" sounds (what English teachers call "alliteration"), emphasize the same thing as "isolated" in line 2. Whitman tries to give us an intense experience of how alone this spider is, and to encourage us to sympathize with it.
This work isn’t just lonely, it’s repetitive. The little spider basically fishes in the air. He must try again and again to start his web, and he’s never sure when one of his strings will hit.
To point this out, Whitman makes his poem repetitive, too. In line 4, he writes the word "filament" (which just means "string") three times, to imitate the way the spider has to do this again and again.
That’s the same feeling we get in line 5. The spider is "ever unreeling" the strings, "ever tirelessly speeding them" (speeding just means "shooting them out"). The repetition is key.
In these three lines, Whitman wants us to learn what the spider is doing. But, he also really wants us to feel what this lonely, repetitive work is like.
This is also a really beautiful chunk of the poem. Read that filament line a few times out loud. Trust us; it’s fun.