I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
This relatively short poem (below) is one of my absolute favorites, not just for its beauty and cleverness but also for its meaning. As I’ve mentioned before, I have often clung to this poem as a liferaft in times of feeling lost.
It does what all the most powerful poems do, at least in my view: it vividly describes and validates a particular aspect of human experience, so that readers who also know that experience will say, “Yes—that is exactly how I feel. And now I know I’m not alone in feeling like this and that it’s okay to feel like this.” Contrary to what I used to think as a teenager obsessed with devotional poetry, I know now that the most life-supporting poems don’t usually offer guidance, advice, a silver lining, or any sort of “moral” or instruction at all. They simply act as a magnified mirror to reflect our own souls back to us.
And that’s what this poem does. You might notice there’s no predicate verb in the second stanza. This reinforces the fact that the poem isn’t telling the reader to do something; it’s just recognizing the feelings and letting them be.
So in times when I’ve felt lost, alone, defeated, and small as I faced a cavernous expanse of options and directions—what career path to pursue, what to believe about the big questions of life, what kind of friends to seek and where, what kind of writing to focus on (this last still being a frequent conundrum)—this poem has been a comfort. Bolstered by its companionship, I remember that I don’t have to know all the answers now, and I go on casting my ropes out into the unknown, hoping one will catch somewhere someday.
I don’t think you’ll need any more interpretation help, but here are a couple word definitions that might be helpful just in case:
• promontory: a mass of land higher than its surroundings (here, probably an extra-tall blade of grass or something)
• filament: a thin thread (here, the spider’s silk)
• gossamer: very light and delicate
• ductile: modable, malleable, able to be shaped
Also, by “mark’d” he means “marked” as in remarked, noticed, observed.
A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman
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 them,
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.