Gay Wilson Allen
and Charles T. Davis, ed., Walt Whitman's Poems: Selections with Critical
Aids, p. 199:
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
"'A Noiseless Patient Spider' (1868)" in Walt
Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 465:
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.
"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."
Carlisle, The Uncertain Self: Whitman's Drama of Identity,
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
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.'"
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
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.
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
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.'"
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.)