“A Noiseless Patient Spider”: about Whitman’s Tactics


Rachel Blau DuPlessis

1.      19th and 20th century poem

2.      Argument about the line, mini (ninny) history of prosody and Whitman as transitional

3.      How the poem works: Argument by analogy

4.      How the poem works: Argument by syntax


1. “19th-and-20th-Century Poem” This is my poem finished in May 1981, 20 years ago, but not particularly comfortable to me then; I am giving it to you now unrevised as a document germane to our exploration of this Whitman poem. It is clear that this poem’s not very hidden source is Whitman’s poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” I was using my work to establish a difference between the 19th and 20th centuries, and the wobble one can feel between the presence of “soul” and the more interesting absence of life without such concepts. Wobble, because the poem has alternate endings, will finish two ways, will not choose one way. Will not declare that one direction is teleologically superior. Will leave the reader suspended between two alternatives. To extend the point, I feel the same way, or similarly, about modernism and the postmodern. I found this poem, by accident, in my files, and of course, as I sit here in November 2001, I see a very small, mite-sized clear tan paper-colored spider on it, disappearing under the page.  Because it is coincident to our thinking about Whitman now, because it is stage one of a consideration of “Whitman’s Influence on Modern and Post-Modern Poetics,” I am offering it here.  It has 2 endings, one is ecstasy and the other is the unreadable to which one cannot have any one summary attitude because we are not its master, but are inside its networks.


                                    19th-and-20th-Century Poem



                                    Go out in the morning, into

                                    the cobwebs

                                    that were spun between the dusk and dawn.

                                    A network of thinnest, brightest

                                    extensions transverse over

                                    the objects I make

                                    with my sight,

                                    e.g., porch, table, bush, all

                                    full-fledged members

                                    in what

                                    I could say I see “out there.”




But the cobwebs’ netting                                               But the cobwebs, ick,

and the web-making worm’s                                         everywhere, here, another

intricate logic,                                                               inarticulable, trianglar

planning how to escape                                     juncturing; leaves

how eat, joy!                                                                if flange bit hang-

long life under the sky                                                   tend

for itself                                                                        (dril) hypotenuse

enter the space between                                                slantwise into another

the self and its dying,                                                     hair’s-breath

o my soul.                                                                     emptiness.



After this preface, reading one poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” seeing how form makes statements in values, attitudes and ideology. Creeley said : “To look at is to look at in words.” We have these words; let’s look and find out what we can make Whitman tell us about his influence on us.


2. Whitman uses a long line and he has an unmistakable pulsing rhetoric. To contextualize, speaking fast and generally, Whitman is a central transition to the modern sense of line in poetry. There are three epochal modes of the line and two central transitional modes in the Anglo-American tradition. Their historical tendency overall (taken as a “progress” to now) is to flatten or erase two traditional formal markers of poetic practice—rhyme and meter. Whitman’s practice represents a major transition into the modern line, the line on which poetry today generally depends. Here’s what I am saying about epochal modes: First (to say “first” I am “forgetting” about Chaucer, sort of), there is the, closural mode of song and stanzaic narrative (Spenser), featuring strongly marked rhyme and meter. The transitional mode is the sonnet, a mode of writing with many examples from the English Renaissance forward, and often functioning as a test of practice, a condensation of closely reasoned, witty argument, and a humanist judgment, personalizing issues around love, time, death, change. BTW, I don’t mean that the modes are over when their epochs are past, because they can appear in our time, traditions being cumulative, regenerative/repetitive and surprising at once. For instance, the closural mode of song  is reasserted in powerful contemporary forms in blues, country music, rap and toasts, and sonnets’ arguments and propositions about time, love and judgment appear in specific practitioners later: from George Meredith to Gwendolyn Brooks, Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer. Second, there is the mode of iambic pentameter and all blank verse traditions from Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth to some of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. This mode features fixed, though flexible talking meter but no rhyme (blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter). This is the mode of discourse, of elaborate meditation, of the working out of elaboration (not condensation), and a form flexible enough to show plethora and detail, without such plethora seeming eccentric.


From blank verse, the transitional mode is the psalmic, parallelism of the Whitmanic line, a line that has its contemporary renaissance in Allen Ginsberg. The Whitmanic line is the main door into all modernist and post-humanist lines in poetry, In this mode, lines are organized in phrasally intact units, dependent upon narration of an action, or the accumulation of elements (the famous “lists”), and meditation on these. After Whitman, in modernism and into our era, there is the mode of “free verse.” —featuring no fixed rhyme, no fixed meter. This prosodic situation can give rise to an obvious annoyance and critical question: the “why is this poetry” question, the equivalent of “my child could paint that” assertion when faced with modern art. The answer to the why is this poetry is straightforward, but not simple. In this epoch, poetry is defined by the fact of, the act of segmentivity itself, the situational choice (made in action, line by line) of where to cut the line—the line against the space of the page, the line in relation to syntax, the line in relation to tone or subjectivity/ voice, the line in relation to rhetorical stance. In our post-Whitman epoch, modern and postmodern poetry gets defined only by linebreak, by situational choice in a particular case, visual, aural, syntactic, not by the fixed numerology of meter or the regular chiming of rhyme. This is a purification akin to the purification of abstraction in modern art: we are faced with the bare girders-- issues of segmentivity itself.


The transition to pure segmentivity is shown in the poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

You can see in this poem how Whitman is transitional. The poem is spoken in 2 sentences, corresponding to 2 stanzas. The sentences have strong rhetorical phrases and the linebreaks are made phrasally, by breaking up the syntax into its phrasal units, relative clauses, prepositional phrases, and participle build. The syntactic repetition inside the phrases (as of the word filament, or of the present participles) create a lot of insistence on action and its repetition. These are not breath units, but really breathless units, as the lines maximize the information in each. The lines are declamatory, and as is fitting for a mode that claimed justification in the psalms , and Biblical repetition and build, the mode has a prayerful quality. Whitman’s line produces secular prayer: yearning and hope held by faith and determination.


Yet the poem is not built of pure segmentivity without predictable pattern or repetition. There is a solidity of metrics, meter un-marked as such, yet present. That is, you could count this poem as mainly 6 beat lines: beginning 3 beats, then the next 4 lines as 6 beats. Second stanza 3 beats, then 6, then a whopping 8 beats, then the final 2 lines of 6 beats. Some people would argue for the ghost of meter  (T.S. Eliot’s phrase), the impossibility of perfectly free verse. There is no doubt that pattern here satisfies, and can be said to correspond ethically and thematically to statement. The two 3 beat lines beginning the two stanzas establish the parallelism of spider and soul. The 6 beat lines violate the standard pentameter line, are excessive to the blank verse “norm,” pushing that envelope just enough. Such a prevalence of hexameter (6 beat lines) alludes to heroic, epic classical verse, yet make this “epic” heroism out of the smallness and minority of spider and searching.  A kind of assertive non-humility makes the soul the hero of this epic quest in 10 lines. The hexameter, or any other line here, is not at all iambic; the many unstressed syllables (such as the dactyls of filament filament or ceaselessly  or gossamer) open the line from within, making space, more room for every word to have its own stress or accent value. The same kind of textured richness of verbal individuality is found in Hopkins: there is an ethical meaning to stress prosodies –prosodies where you count only stressed syllables and let the others pile up as many as you’d like. The ethical meaning is admiring the expanses of particularity that any word evinces.


In much modern poetry, the lines are also phrasal, in a lot of post-modern poetry you can see hyperactive caesura, startling enjambment (there’s none in this Whitman), intra-phrasal line breaks, visual text putting the page’s white space inside the poem, and a strong sense of line segment and its hinge driving the poem. Any teacher who wants an exercise to see how line functions in the change from Whitman to Williams might have people write out the poem as “prose” and then compare the linebreaks with the poem in this other form. This works well with this poem and the notorious so-called “red wheelbarrow” from William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All. 


By means of Whitman’s use of line, the poem is a poetics of itself. Each of the psalmic verset lines is like a spider line; the strong inner analogy between exploratory line of poetry and brave exploration by spider makes the poem a terrific poetics for poetry in general, and not only for existential searching in the empty universe in particular. Poetry itself—that is, searching in lines, throwing lines out-- is fullness, is adequacy. What the spider finds is that the thread “catches,” in the process of searching, even if (or no matter whether) there is any final answer found. 


3. Soul, no problem: argument by analogy. An analogy like this is complete—it says what I assume you SHALL (absolutely) assume. if in meter, the poem is a mini-epic, in image, it is a mini-ode arguing for an analogy between the work of the spider and the work of the soul, both persisting in a vast universe of emptiness. Both sets of beings (spider and soul) are doing the same thing, with the spider giving hope to the soul, or the two acting in parallel ways. There is no rupture between the natural world and the world of interior consciousness, such as one might have today. The poem can be treated (despite the apparent humility of noiseless and patient mite) as a major drama of an individual confronting the Universe. No mediation, no society, no institutions—this is the pure hit of romantic ego claims.


An ode is a quintessentially spiritual poem, reaching into unknowns, dramatizing its own calling to poetry, “invocation and vocation” are linked (as Jonathan Culler said about “the apostrophe” and Paul Fry about the ode). The voice calls out (o my soul) to announce its own calling into its essaying vocation, throwing “lines” out to the universe experimentally, hoping they hold. It is a poem whose strict analogy (poet/poet’s soul parallels spider) avoids any abysses of weirdness that standing at the edge of the universe might provoke. The romantic analogy of spider to poet prevents full confrontation with the real void, the generative mysterious void of outer space, the pure nothingness of a non-theistic world. (That remark parallels my “20th century ending in the poem above). The interest here is the poet is NOT overwhelmed in his meditation. The sublime is contained in this poem; that is part of its charm, contained by the patness, the moralizing quality of the strict analogy. This poem affirms, it does not doubt.


This part of the Whitman poem is probably not an influence on postmodern poetry, though it has residual impact on some modern poetries—notably Stevens’ argument of the adequacy of power of search, or H.D.’s quasi-theistic universe. This poem is not itself theistic, but it is playing in a romantic and theistic universe of cause and effect, of ideologies where effort does finally pay off, satisfaction can be had, something guarantees something (though we don’t here call it God). This is not the universe of the true void; readers are even  guaranteed something by the half rhyme (assonance) that ends this poem: HOLD and SOUL. This is the universe of romantic existentialism—human will is powerful, there is a possibility of building a real structure of hope, however gossamer, and there is an adequacy of mind to world, act to world. The curiosity is the asocial nature of this poem compared with many of Whitman’s other works, ones filled with human jostling, interaction and desire. It’s a poem of existential loneliness, hanging almost nowhere, yet the inside (which manufactures filaments for bridge or anchor) is adequate to the pressures of this “vastness.” This is not a modern or postmodern attitude.


4. Argument by syntax. Creeley said, just to remind us of our method: “To look as is to look at in words.” The ways the words are the meaning.


To return to the point above, the reader gets this sense of power and certainty even amid existential crisis in the repeated word “filament.” It is a strong, strong word. It is the longest word a person could choose for thread or string or strand, having 3 very precise syllables (repeated 3 times). But there’s something more, something inside the word, a crypt or shadow word that itself sends a subliminal message. I am referring to the “-ment” of “filament” the sense of the past participle of the word “to mean” being buried effectively 3 times inside that repetition. That word “meant” suggests sub rosa that the search for meaning or something solid will be satisfied, will not go unrewarded, will have “meant” something. To have intended  something, to have design, significance, to matter, to have a specified importance or significance. Inside the very word of searching is a narrative sense that solution will be forthcoming.  This is a reading from an encrypted word in syntax.


The goal is the journey, the exploration, the architectural building of endless bridges. This is given to us syntactically by quite a lot of participial repetition in the poem. The poem argues the lesson of the spider with the verbals: on the one side mark’d, isolated, launch’d, surrounded, detached (past participles) and on the other surrounding, unreeling, speeding, musing, venturing, throwing, seeking (present participles). The turning point is the word launch’d; the point of maximum contact is the shift into the subjunctive “be form’d” which brings the past participle into the realm of active possibility. Thus the poem stages a quarrel between the past participle and the present participle, which is the quarrel between fixedness and static situation and the effort, activity or struggle of making. This quarrel unfolds and then is resolved in the subjunctive, which uses the past participle for a sense of futurity and possibility.


The syntax of “vacant vast surrounding” is particularly felicitous for the sense of emptiness, since the phrase consists of three words, not one of which is, to our ears, a noun (vacant is an adjective; vast is an adjective, and surrounding is a present participle. All three evoke the missing nouns (vacancy, vastness, surroundings) but they all lack something, and the language offers that sense of yearning incipience toward. Caveat: this reading of syntax is a modern reading; in the nineteenth century this argument might not have held because the second word in this phrase might well have been read differently, leading to a meaning much more fixed than I have just argued. WHY?  See the dictionary: vast can be read not as an adjective, but as a noun, an archaic noun meaning an immense space. Note how the difference in reading a word—in the 19th or the 20th centuries-- offers ideological differences between a named vastness and an open unnamed less-assured site. This is like the difference between romantic/ modern and post-modern and we’ve created it in interpretation, reading vast as a noun or vast as adjective. This difference in readings shows how where one stands, one standpoint in time (and maybe in space) can indeed relativize meaning at times. That’s why reading poems is a recurrent pleasure and why new readings by situated readers can sometimes offer new insight to old.