Building Ties and Surrendering Wings
The poem A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost’s Design find common ground in their main character: a spider. The structures of the poems are the same in that they have two stanzas, with the first one introducing the spider by way of description. The second stanzas make way for reflection, with Noiseless touching on the subject of the Soul, and Design conjecturing on the motivation of the spider. At first glance, the poems seem to have a trivial and limited scope because they feature a mere insect as protagonist. However, as the poems unfold, one can see that there are more meanings to unearth, more sides to the story, more insights to the human condition.
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
In this poem, the spider is weaving a web to attach itself to its surroundings, like the Soul of the persona in the poem which is trying to reach out and connect with something. The most noticeable theme is the struggle to overcome vacancy and space, by “launching filaments” and “flinging threads” in order to finally belong somewhere. By talking about a spider and such a complex thing as the Soul in one poem, Whitman draws a parallel between the life’s labor of an insect and a human, effectively highlighting the fundamental similarity among creatures in this universe.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
In the poem titled Design, the spider is depicted along with two other outstanding elements: the heal-all and the moth. The color white is dominant in the whole poem, perhaps speaking of purity and innocence. However, certain words like “death and blight,” “witches’ broth” and “darkness” signify a deeper, more sinister undercurrent in the poem. The reader is led to speculate what urged the spider to attack the moth and kill it, and what is the connection of the white flower as the backdrop of that appalling scene. This combination of elements can give the impression that good and bad things occur by some design, and whether this design is governed by heaven or hell remains to be seen.
The two poems differ in their main content. Noiseless speaks about the compulsion to reach out and set down roots, the incessant and patient journey towards belonging and acceptance. On the other hand, Design suggests that there are dual forces at work in the universe, and these forces dictate what we do with our lives. Indeed, “if design govern in a thing so small,” what exempts humans from the influence of a higher being? Design suggests pondering on the nature of things, that could in some ways directs us to issues related to religion while Noiseless presents the the struggle of an individual to deal with life, to survive at the very least, which directs the reader to contemplate on the psychological and sociological issues of the self.
The spider “tirelessly” sets forth its filaments in Noiseless, without any real guarantee of success in the end or any promise of achieving its goal. However, Design’s spider is guided by some unseen force; thus, it is destined to succeed. Both spiders are functioning, the former out of its own volition, while the latter out of the dictates of an outer element. Furthermore, the former spider is governed by a noble purpose, whereas the latter one is driven towards gaining advantage over another species, and exerting power for its benefit. The issue of freedom can drawn out here. While the noiseless spider manifests control over his life, the spider in Design doesnt have much choice, but to succumb to its destructive nature.
The imagery in Whitman’s poem is very light and fragile. In Frost’s poem, the images are more solid, more thick. Whitman’s spider is in pursuit to begin a life –Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold. Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul. Frost’s spider is on its way into ending a life. Yet both spiders are lost in a way. Whitman’s in trying to duct somehere, in its search for something that would hold its web, in its need to belong . Frost’s in being “helpless” against its own destructive nature.
The mood of the poems is similar in general contemplative manner, as well as the smooth flow of the stanzas. Even though Noiseless is unrhyming, unlike the rhyming scheme of Design, it also has a calm effect on the reader which is conducive for pondering.
Both poems derive their basic similarity from the premise that creatures are put on this earth to strive towards a goal, be it righteous or not. An individual can choose to establish relationships, cross distances, and build bridges, or choose one’s strength to overpower weaker beings. Whatever the decision of the individual, this will render purpose to one’s life. The soul is “seeking the spheres,” casting about the thread until it latches on to something solid. The spider is steered toward that height, to walk away with the dead moth into the night. The universe is created in such a way that all things are connected with each other, with one action affecting another. Ties are made, wings are surrendered for the sake of favoring one specie over another. This has been the way of the world for ages, and like the behavior of spiders, it will remain likewise for the rest of time.
Representative Poetry Online. 2005. University of Toronto Library.
04 May 2007 <http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/2281.html>.
Chapman, Wes. “Human and Divine Design: An Annotation of Robert Frost’s Design.”
The American Poetry Web. 19 Sept. 2001. Illinois Wesleyan University.
02 May 2007. <http://titan.iwu.edu/~wchapman/americanpoetryweb/frodesan.html>.