“A Noiseless Patient Spider” is a poem written in 1868 By Walt Whitman and published in the edition of 1891 of Leaves of Grass. In this poem, Whitman establishes a ceaseless quest for meaning and knowledge in the vastness of the world through vivid descriptions of the noiseless patient spider while making its web. He equates that who looks for meaning with the spider in the sense that the former looks for connections and the latter makes its web with connections. This paper is a hermeneutic reading of Whitman’s poem under the theoretical framework of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics.
The paper investigates how the lexical, grammatical and prosodic disposition of the poem come into play to form a dialogue which culminates in what Gadamer terms ‘fusion of horizons’.
Whitman’s poem appears to be describing an isolated quiet spider tirelessly and constantly making its web in an empty vast environment around it. However, the poem moves from a concrete metaphor in which the spider is working on its web, into an abstract scene where the speaker compares his soul to the spider.
During this transformation from abstract world into concrete one, the speaker questions his purpose in this vast world. From the beginning of the poem the reader is confronted with a creature with specific characteristics. The first line of the poem “A noiseless patient spider,” adds more emphasis to the nature of this tiny creature in the sense that it indicates that the poem is almost an Ode to the spider. The adjectives “noiseless” and “patient” make the reader anticipate the nature of this character along with the theme of the poem at large.
The main theme this poem by Walt Whitman develops is the quest of exploration of meaning in the vastness of the universe. Whitman suggests three ways of achieving this goal: courage, patience and perseverance. The first quality entails taking the risks and facing every obstacle one might face during his quest to find meaning and significance. While the second emphasizes continuous work and moving from one point to the next without surrender for the journey is both long and difficult. The last quality that would lead to meaning is perseverance; this quality stresses that the discoverer should defy the defeatist spirit which might appear at any phase of the long journey and keep going “till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere”. The poem compares a spider to a human being in the sense that the former spins threads to build its web in its vast surrounding the same way a human being crosses oceans and soars the skies to make new connections with which he can discover knowledge and human experience.
Through this comparison of the spider and the speaker’s soul, Whitman vividly depicts the loneliness of the speaker to show his inner struggles to reach the purposefulness and meaning of the world. The organization of the poem supports this end; that is, the poem is divided into two balanced stanzas. The first stanza describes the spider vividly while it is continuously in the process of making its web; while the second stanza is attributed, with the same observations, to the soul of the speaker. The second stanza parallels the first both in form and meaning. For example, the loneliness and emptiness “vast vacant surrounding” that characterize the spider’s surrounding correspond with the isolation and the vastness of the speaker’s environment where the soul of the speaker is located “Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space”.
Moreover, in the first stanza the spider works ceaselessly on its web “Launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself”, the same way the speaker’s soul is “Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them” (Whitman 343). This way does not only enable the speaker to escape from his own solitude, but it does also give him the ability to express his inner sufferings through connecting new worlds. We can deduce from this poem that Whitman compares writing poetry to making webs, a job that needs tiresome repetitive work of writing and editing before it can reach its final form “Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere” (Whitman 343). The work of poetry functions like a bridge which connects different parts allowing dialogue and understanding to take place among people.
In addition to this formulaic organization of the poem, Walt Whitman uses several techniques through which he conveys his message the best way possible. The poem is written in the free verse form, a form which does not rhyme with fixed forms as in the romantic poetry. Whitman, the father of free verse in English poetry, uses this form to free his poetry from the chains of traditional form. Furthermore, repetition is the dominant technique throughout the poem. It appears in various parts of the poem as in line 2 and 3 with the repetition of the word ‘Mark’d’, a long with line 4 with the repetition of the word ‘filament’, in addition to the repetition of the phrase ‘O my soul’. This technique enables Whitman to make the form of the poem go in harmony with its content; that is, both the work of the spider and the work of the speaker involve repetition, therefore, the form of the poem highly mirrors its content. Additionally, Whitman uses other poetic devices such as alliteration which we find in the third line ‘vacant vast’, and metaphor which lies in the comparison of the noiseless patient spider with the soul of the speaker.
Accordingly, the lexical, grammatical and prosodic disposition do not only constitute an intrinsic harmony of the poem, but they also form a dialogue with the interference of the reader. The poem calls the reader to go on the same journey as the speaker did. This is more evident in the second line of the poem with the personal pronoun ‘I’: “I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated” (Whitman 343). Consequently, the reader feels that he is the one involved in the action of observing the spider spinning threads to make its web. This involvement drives the reader into a deep and continuous dialogue with the poem. Furthermore, the notion of creating a direct dialogue with the text is better clarified in the hermeneutic project of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in his book Truth and Method. Dialogue and conversation constitute the very essence of Gadamer’s philosophy of understanding. He takes his arguments higher to the extent that he considers human beings themselves a mere conversation “the conversation that we ourselves are”.
His use of being in dialogue with text is the core principle of his hermeneutic project. To comprehend a text, according to Gadamer, is to reach an understanding about it with another party of dialogue. This understanding is possible only through a conversation which guarantees the continuous interplay of the process of question and answer. In the process of understanding, each member of the conversation brings his own horizon which he develops through a number of previous experiences that stem from his own tradition and confront it with another’s horizon not to show who is right or wrong, but rather to find a compromise which leads to understanding. Horizons, on the other hand, are not static entities, instead they develop and move across time and space; that is, whenever and wherever two persons reach understanding a new horizon is formed. Additionally, in understanding participants’ individual horizons fuse to form new horizon for another possibility of inquiry and dialogue. This is the type of dialogue that the poem is establishing with the speaker who questions his convictions trying to reach meaning.
For the sake of understanding, the speaker goes on this tiresome and highly demanding journey “Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere” (Whitman 343). However, the process of understanding should not be understood as if individuals surrender their own opinions, nor is it a subordination to the other participant in the conversation: Transposing ourselves consists neither in the empathy of one individual for another nor in subordinating another person to our own standards; rather, it always involves rising to a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity but also that of the other…To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand—not in order to look away from it but to see it better, within a larger whole and in truer proportion.
Hence, “The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vintage point” . As far as human understanding is concerned, a horizon is the perspective from which a person sees and judges things he knows, and realizes the things he knows from those he doesn’t know. The degree of knowledge of the things that are known can either widen the horizon of understanding or narrow it. The latter expands in accordance with how much one goes further in the unknown and the unfamiliar. This idea is evident in the quest of the speaker of the poem in the sense that he keeps searching and going into the unknown for the sake of reaching that intended other with whom he can build a connection. Although the speaker suffers from a kind of isolation just as his semblable spider, he still emphasizes and insists on finding connections
The way the subject explores this unknown territory is through bringing his own horizon into contact with others ending up in a state of exchanging understanding of the subject matter. For example, two persons in a conversation each one of them brings his horizon into dialogue and exchange of ideas until they form an agreed upon understanding. As a result of that interplay of ideas, each participant of the dialogue is going to broaden his own understanding the same way a spider completes its web. “A Noiseless patient spider” by Walt Whitman is one of the most known poems that call for dialogue as the only way to reach true understanding. Whitman conveys his ideas through comparing the noiseless patient spider to the speaker of the poem.
The quest of understanding is a ceaseless strive of repetitive work like that of a spider spinning its web. The message of this poem is better clarified by the theory of understanding proposed by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. True understanding, according to Gadamer, requires all horizons to come into dialogue. This should not be taken, however, as a subordination of one participant of the conversation to the other or that any of the participants would surrender his own horizon for the other. What Gadamer suggests instead is a situation in which both parties would bring their horizons into dialogue until they reach an agreed upon understanding. This understanding is not final, but it is only a point of departure for various other possibilities of dialogue.