Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, widely regarded as the preeminent nineteenth-century American poets, are notable for the great differences in their verse. They knew little of one another: Dickinson was aware of Whitman by reputation and probably via short extracts published in the Springfield Republican, while Whitman apparently knew nothing of Dickinson. This site works outward from two of their best known poems, both treating spiders, and both composed at roughly the same time, Dickinsonís "A spider sewed at night" and Whitmanís "A Noiseless Patient Spider" (1860s for Dickinson; 1850s - 1860s for Whitman). At a fundamental level, these poems treat the spider-artist: that is, they are poems that explore the nature of creativity, artistry, and audience. The spider weaves its web, mysteriously, out of itself while taking sustenance from all that it ingests. This site traces a web of connectedness surrounding each of these poems. With Dickinson, we contextualize "A spider sewed at night" by considering several of her other spider poems and by considering some twentieth-century poetic responses to her spider poetry. With Whitman, we contextualize "A Noiseless Patient Spider" through a different approach, by examining the long process of composition whereby this poem that began as a metaphysical musing, took an intermediate step of treating the calamus emotion, appeared in various forms through periodical and print publication, and ended up in its final printing with the homoerotic themes suppressed and the metaphysical musings reemphasized. At another level, too, this site (and our overall FIPSE project) examines how hypertext emphasizes and illuminates a different sort of web-making, and how digital presentation of the poetry of Whitman and Dickinson can suggest something closer to the fluidity of their compositional process than can the static form of print.

Whitman and Dickinsonís poetry emerged out of wide reading in the popular literature of their day. One context, then, for their spider poems is the sentimental nature writing of the time. We have provided a link to "Spiders: Their Structure and Habits" to give a sense of what nineteenth-century popular science was saying about spiders just shortly before Whitman and Dickinson wrote their poems. This essay, appearing in Harperís Monthly Magazine (June 1860), was in one of the periodicals subscribed to by the Dickinson household, and it was, of course, a magazine that Whitman was well aware of, too. We invite students to explore other popular culture representations of spiders, such as Rose Terryís "Miss Muffett and the Spider" (Harperís May 1860).

Whitman and Dickinson tend to generate critical disagreement, perhaps Dickinson even more so than Whitman. Because of the long association with weaving and creativity, with spinning and womenís work, with spinning and spinsters, debates have raged over how to read Dickinsonís poem, with Gilbert and Gubar offering one cogent reading and Susan Howe offering a compelling alternative reading. Other readings are possible, too, and have indeed been put forth. We offer in critical contexts brief selections from various critical views in order to enable students to situate their own understanding of Dickinsonís poem in the light of the ongoing critical conversation.