On Whitman

Gay Wilson Allen and Charles T. Davis, ed., Walt Whitman's Poems: Selections with Critical Aids, p. 199:

"In both versions [the notebook version and the 1881 Leaves] the main subject is loneliness, but in the earlier one it is longing for human love, 'unknown on earth,' but believed by the poet to exist 'latent' in oceanic abundance; while in the final version the soul, a tiny speck of consciousness surrounded by vast oceans of empty space, is searching for faith and spiritual anchorage. Whitman's revision not only universalized his motif but it also gave the whole structure of the poem a perfection it had not originally had. As Mark Van Doren has noted in an illuminating analysis of this poem, 'Here is solitude with a vengeance, in vacancy so vast that any soul seen at its center, trying to comprehend and inhabit it looks terribly minute.'--Introduction to Poetry (New York: Sloane Associates, 1951), p. 43. The spider is not only minute in comparison to the surrounding space into which it throws its fragile 'filament,' but it is also 'noiseless' and 'patient,' adjectives that contribute powerfully to the pathos of the situation. The poet does not say that the spider sits on a twig, a shelf, or the cornice of a house, but 'on a little promontory.' The generality aids the analogy between the spider and the human soul. Nor does the poet say the spider spun a thread, but 'launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself. . . .' The length of the word, the f's and the l's, and the repetition emphasize the 'patient' effort, and the approximation of internal rhyme in line 5 ('unreeling' -- 'speeding') is suggestive of the action."

Joseph Andriano, "'A Noiseless Patient Spider' (1868)" in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 465:

"The poem's genesis may have been as early as the mid-1850s, when Whitman compared the human quest for knowledge of the spiritual world to a worm on the end of a twig reaching out into the immense vacant space beyond its own little world. The notebook passage stresses the limits of 'our boasted knowledge' and the elusive nature of 'spiritual spheres' as people attempt 'to state them' with tongue or pen (Notebooks 6:2051). By 1862 or 1863, in another notebook entry (Notebooks 2:522-23; 700), the worm had become a spider, and the focus shifted from knowledge or expression of the infinite to homoerotic longing. The Soul, seeking love, is compared to a spider throwing filaments out of itself in attempts to make a connection beyond itself. The 'oceans' in this early version of the poem are 'latent souls of love . . . pent and unknown.' To call the notebook entry a representation of gay cruising seems an exaggeration, but it certainly would have belonged in 'Calamus' rather than the more metaphysical 'Whispers' if Whitman had not transformed it.

In revision, "Spider" became one of Whitman's most powerful lyrics, a perfect illustration of Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum that nature is a symbol of spirit. Whitman begins the poem with a description of a creature observed, then relates what he has seen to his own soul. The spider patiently launching forth filaments from itself in an attempt to connect across 'the vacant bast surrounding' becomes an emblem for the soul reaching out, not only for love, but for any link with the 'not-me.' Apostrophizing his own soul ('And you O my soul'), the poet's analogical process is similar to Oliver Wendell Holmes's meditation on 'The Chambered Nautilus' (1858), in which an empty mollusk shell inspires the poet to address his own soul. . . . But while Holmes is content to learn a pious lesson, hinting at the afterlife, Whitman suspends the soul in Pascal's terrifying empty spaces of the infinite."

E. Fred Carlisle, The Uncertain Self: Whitman's Drama of Identity, 143:

Whitman's final version of "Noiseless Patient Spider" offers "no assurance that spiders or souls, after enduring a period of isolation and loneliness, will inevitably succeed in bridging the vast space separating each from some other. . . . It emphasizes the tenuousness of the attempt and the connection by focussing on the flimsy filament the spider unreels and on the 'gossamer thread' the soul hopes will catch somewhere."

Paul Diehl, "'A Noiseless Patient Spider': Whitman's Beauty--Blood and Brain," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 6 (Winter 1989), 129.

"The three final versions of 'A NOISELESS PATIENT SPIDER' are as similar and as different as the leaves of grass Whitman loved. And each version, in joining the physical and semantic acts of language, in marrying brain and blood in different ways, achieves its own beauty. Each is in Whitman's words, . . . from the Preface of 1855, the 'cleanest expression,' for in finding 'no sphere worthy of itself,' each 'makes one.'"

On Dickinson

Barton Levi St. Armand, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 32-34; 36-37:

Dickinson was "a great woman poet who took as her emblem of the artist the image of the spider. . . . Emily Dickinson, who rejected . . . Calvinist logic, used the industrious spider to emphasize ironically yet poignantly the distance between life and death. . . Dickinson's spider is a pagan artificer in an orthodox Christian world. . . . This artistic spider is playful and much too self-indulgent for Puritan economy to tolerate, an aesthete who juggles words for his own amusement and who must pay the penalty of seeing both himself and his art swept into the abyss of time. . . . The spider-poet, like Dickinson herself, walked a threadlike path over an immense world. Both were fully conscious that the product of this precarious capering, whether it be a minutely constructed geometric web or a finely woven tapestry of words, was subject to imminent destruction.

"Here the spider-artist is no gymnast or prima ballerina, but a determined craftsman who works by the glare of his own materials-painfully-in isolation and obscurity. The 'Arc of White' can be either a bare piece of cloth or a blank piece of paper; the final result an ornamental 'Ruff' of words or the winding-sheet for some fabled, chthonic creature, a guardian of great treasures hidden deep within the earth. Dickinson once signed a letter to T.W. Higginson 'Your Gnome,' but whether she herself was to be considered a grand dame of poetry or an impish freak of letters was part of her equivocal legacy to posterity. Like Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, Dickinson could only ply the steadfast trade of the s olitary sewer, and the phenomenon of her art, no matter how beautiful or how serviceable, was designed never to reveal fully the secret passion that created it.. . . . Stripped bare of sentimentality and didacticism, "A Spider sewed at Night" seems to us a very contemporary, a very existential poem."

Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield , Mass: Paris Press, 1998: p. 166:

"'Physiognomy' is the attempt to understand the character and spiritual qualities of an individual thorough the study of facial features. Martha Dickinson Bianchi made a point of mentioning that during the years when Susan and Emily were in their thirties, 'My Mother was blessedly busy in her home,' and one could see 'Aunt Emily's light across the snow in the Winter gloaming, or burning late when she remained up all night, to protect her pla nts from chill.' For 'days and even weeks,' the light was a 'mute greeting between them supplemented only by their written messages.' Emily sent or recited this poem to Loo and Fanny Norcross, and the Norcross sisters then sent the poem to Thomas Higgin son."

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000: pp. 638-639

"If Dickinson's female spider artist suggests her deliberate elaboration of an aesthetic of artifice, that same spider implies also her commitment to another central female metaphor: sewing. . . . this meta phor is ambiguous, simultaneously positive and negative, like the spider's ruff and shroud. Suicidally stitching up the chasm of her life 'with a breath,' for instance, was one kind of sewing Dickinson imagined. But, as a strategy for mending fragmentat ion, that was closer to the bleeding bird's public melodrama than to the spider's careful plotting. Angrily sardonic, such a stitching would be a theatrical gesture performed 'in broad daylight,' like the magical self-immolation of Plath's Lady Lazarus. By contrast, the spider's sewing really does function to mend or heal fragmentation in a positive way. Where the stitching of suicide simply gathers the poet's scattered selves into the uniform snow of death, the spider artist's artful stitching connect s those fragments with a single self-developed and self-developing yarn of pearl. The stitch of suicide is a stab or puncture, like a 'stitch in the side.' The stitch of art is provident and healing, 'a stitch in time.' Stabbing, wounding, the stitch of suicide paradoxically presents not just a unifying but a further rending. Healing, the stitch of art is a bridge. . . . In a sense, indeed, we might say that as a private spider artist Dickinson employs her yarn of pearl to resolve her quarrelsomely fragmented public selves-the nun and the gnome, the virgin and the empress-into a single woman pearly white. But in addition the filaments of thought flung out by what Whitman would have called her 'noiseless patient spider' self must also have helped her bridge the gap between the polar loneliness of that privacy in which she invented her selves, and the more populous and tropical air in which she enacted the melodramatic fictions those selves embodied. Finally, as the principal activity through which her creative demon expressed itself, it was the metaphorical sewing of art-a single, all absorbing process-which contrived all the superficially different costumes those selves clad themselves for their encounter with immortality."

Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1985. p. 13-14:

"Who is this Spider-Artist? Not my Emily Dickinson. This is poetry not life, and certainly not sewing. Over a hundred years ago Dickinson marked this passage in her copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh:

      By the way,
The Works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary-or a stool
To stumble over and vex you . . . 'curse that stool!'
Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not
But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
This most hurts most, this-that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.
   (Aurora Leigh, 3, ll. 455-469.)

The Spider-Woman spinning with yarn of pearl, whose use of horizontal dashes instead of ordinary punctuation in her poems is here described as being 'neater and more soigné in manuscript than in type . . .. tiny and clear . . . find thoughts joining split thoughts theme to theme," was an artist as obsessed, solitary, and un compromising as Cézanne. Like him she was ignored and misunderstood by her own generation, because of the radical nature of her work. During this Spider's lifetime there were many widely read 'poetesses.'"