In this new paragraph, Whitman begins to compare his own soul to this image of the spider. In the rest of the poem, he’s basically completing the other half of a big metaphor.
In fact, he won’t even mention that spider again, but he definitely relies on the visual and emotional picture he gives us in the first five lines.
When he introduces his soul (maybe we can think of this as the third character in the poem), he moves from a tiny example in nature to a big, abstract, spiritual point.
This is Whitman’s style. He loves to switch from big to small and back again. It’s a way of showing us how he believes that the different parts of the world are related, even if they are really far apart, or look very different.
Also, since he set up the picture of the spider, the image helps us to visualize a thing that we’ve never seen, like a soul.
He talks about where his soul "stands." If this were the first line of the poem, it wouldn’t mean much. How can a soul "stand" anyway? But, since we can compare it to the spider, it seems less weird. We can sort of see his soul standing on a "little promontory," like where the spider "stood" in line 2.
Oh, and as a bonus, take a look at that part where he says, "O my soul." When a writer talks straight to an abstract idea like that, it’s called an "apostrophe." Yeah, just like the punctuation mark. Don’t ask us why they couldn’t come up with another word.
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Here, he’s trying to give you a sense of how very alone the soul is – just like that "isolated spider."
We know you have the point by now, but just take a second to look at how carefully he sets up this comparison.
Here, the "measureless oceans of space" match up with the "vacant vast surrounding" in line 3.
Even the word "surrounded" pops up again here, echoing that same word he chose before. Except, maybe here, it’s even a little bit more intense.
Those measureless oceans sound really huge, and they might give you a feeling of profound loneliness that you didn’t have before. With the spider, we were in a normal space, somewhere on Earth. Now, we seem to be on some other plane, some huge outer or inner space. Whitman can definitely be a little weird when he wants to.
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Now, the soul begins to spin its metaphorical webs.
These spider-like strings are what the soul is "throwing" in this line.
It uses the imaginary webs to explore the space; the soul is "venturing," "seeking."
This work, like the spider’s, is repetitive and endless. Whitman tells us that the soul always works and thinks – "ceaselessly musing," as he puts it.
But, what in the heck does the soul actually do? Maybe Whitman imagined something, in his spaced-out visions, but we’re not used to a soul "doing" anything.
This is why leading off with the spider example is so important. Now that we’re traveling through space, it seems less weird, because we can always rely on the metaphor of the spider. When we get confused about this journey of the soul, we can always compare it to the spider’s simple web spinning.
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold, Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Now, Whitman really brings the spider analogy home.
He begins to imagine what it is like when the soul succeeds, when its "gossamer (that just means "silky") thread" finally catches a solid point.
All the spider (and, apparently, the soul) needs is that first bridge, and then it can make all the other strings in its web.
He plays around with this idea a little, like when he talks about the "anchor" being "ductile." All that he means there is that the thread which the soul attaches is stretchy, and can be pulled out without breaking.
Whitman’s not very formal about his poetry, but he does get excited, and does let himself get carried away by an unusual word or a fascinating image. It’s part of his unique style, and can be charming when you get used to it. He really embroiders these last two lines, helping us to imagine how satisfying it is when that first line catches.
He emphasizes this by repeating the first two words ("Till the") in these last two lines. It gives the poem a sense of closure, like the rhyming couplet at the end of a sonnet.
But, before we leave this poem behind, we might need a serious reality check. Sure, we can tell that the soul tries to weave threads, kind of like a spider. It tries to start some kind of metaphorical web. But, what could Whitman possibly be talking about?
He leaves the poem on a mysterious note, since we know that the soul is trying to connect, but he doesn’t really say how, or to what.