1. Comment on how both stylistic choices and poetic techniques contribute to the meanings of Whitman's 1881 version of "Noiseless Patient Spider" and "A spider sewed at night" (the version in Open Me Carefully). What poetic techniques do Whitma
n and Dickinson share? What differentiates them from each other? Why did Whitman leave the reader in a state of suspension? Instead of a complete sentence, the second stanza is a phrase, and then a subordinate clause, followed by several participle phr
ases and subordinate clauses.
2. Discuss Whitman and Dickinson's use of the spider to comment on the process of creativity and the relationship to audience.
3. Barton Levi St. Armand comments that "stripped bare of sentimentality and didacticism, 'A Spider sewed at Night' seems to us a very contemporary, a very existential poem." Joseph Andriano, in turn, argues that "Whitman is seeking--through the poem i
tself--to lessen the soul's existential loneliness." Do you agree that a fundamental philosophical similarity undergirds the two poems?
4. Read some of the poems by other authors on the Poetic Contexts page of this site and as you do, consider the ways in which the poets present spiders as artists, workers, threatening animals, or even household nuisan
ces. How do Whitman and Dickinson present spiders in "A Noiseless Patient Spider" and "A Spider sewed at Night"? What are the immediate differences and similarities you see among the treatments? How does this context of other spider poems from the nine
teenth century help you understand the poems of Whitman and Dickinson?
5. Read Charlotte Taylor's "Spiders: Their Structure and Habits" in the September 1860 Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Her article reflects the descriptive practice of naturalists writing in the nineteenth-cent
ury; it's full of close observation, careful description, but also suggests some mysterious aspects of their "habits." How does she describe the nature of spiders generally? As you read "A Noiseless Patient Spider" and "A Spider sewed at Night," do you
see any reflections of such descriptions? For further consideration, you might also read a second essay Taylor wrote: "More About Spiders," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 22 (1861): 323-335.
6. In an essay, "Scraps, Stamps, and Cutouts: Emily Dickinson's Domestic Technologies of Publication," critic Jeanne Holland observes that "The spider is Dickinson's conventional shorthand for 'poet'" (see Bibliography on this site for the complete ci
tation). In what ways does this "shorthand" help you understand "A Spider sewed at Night?" Does this "shorthand" help you understand other poems that Dickinson wrote about spiders? (See Poetic Contexts on this site for
other poems that Dickinson wrote). Why do you think Dickinson found it useful to consider a spider as an artist? How does this apply to what you know about Dickinson's life as a poet?
7. In the Poetic Contexts section of this
provide some of the poems written for children in the nineteenth century as well as some suggestions about the mythology of spiders. Spiders have always seemed to play a
role in our constant efforts to understand the natural world; there are even websites designed to help users overcome arachnophobia. Consider, for example, the popularity of the 1990 movie, Arachnophobia, in which a deadly spider from South Ameri
ca creates panic, horror, and some crude special effects in a small California town. Movies like this one play on the fears that many people have about insects, snakes, or even rodents (remember 1984 or Williard?). Do Whitman or Dickinson
play on the popular notions about spiders? How and in what ways?