I enjoy watching spiders, indoors and outdoors, at home and at cultural venues such as zoos and natural history museums. I try to set a good example for arachnophobic friends by transporting spiders gently outdoors instead of smashing them or sluicing them down the drain. I do try to stay away from the black widows and brown recluses, but tarantulas fascinate me.
The phrase "a noiseless patient spider" often comes to mind when I am watching spiders, and recently I felt an urge to know more about its origin and context. I turned first to the works of Emily Dickinson. Since she had written "a fly buzzed when I died" and "how public, like a frog." I assumed she must be my spider poet.
Walt Whitman wrote A Noiseless Patient Spider. This knowledge was strangely satisfying to me, because I've always liked Whitman's poetry much better than I've liked Dickinson's. Reading the whole poem, I was entranced by its tight structure and the parallelism of its two five-line stanzas: the first describing the spider in its "vacant vast surrounding" and the second making an analogy to the poet's soul, "Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them ...Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere."
Ah, the old microcosm / macrocosm theme! Of course I was reminded of Andrew Marvell's On a Drop of Dew, which for me is the quintessential 'metaphysical' poem. "Seeking the spheres to connect them," I moved on to William Blake's Auguries of Innocence, which starts: "To see a world in a grain of sand ... And eternity in an hour" but turns into a series of rants against cruelty at all levels, including "The wanton boy that kills the fly / Shall feel the spider's enmity."
And so I am brought back to spiders, and to my surprise that Walt Whitman had written A Noiseless Patient Spider. I think of Whitman as the poet of noise and impatience -- known for the "barbaric yawp," and "happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place—not for another hour, but this hour" Carol of Occupations, line 157).
I prize silence and spiders, but might never have thought of them together if I hadn't been stuck in this web of poetry.