May 31, 2003

A Noiseless Patient Spider

by Walt Whitman

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Poem: "A Noiseless Patient Spider," by Walt Whitman.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

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.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Walt Whitman, born in West Hills, Long Island (1819). When Whitman was six years old, his father took him to see a public appearance of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who had helped Americans win the Revolutionary War. Lafayette picked the six-year-old Whitman out of the crowd, lifted the boy into his arms, and kissed him on the cheek. Whitman felt that the moment marked him for greatness. While he was still in his teens, he became an apprentice printer on a liberal working-class newspaper in Brooklyn. In his free time, he wandered about the city's museums and theaters and streets, talking to and debating with everyone he met. He especially loved to hear his elders talk about the past, and in his first published article, he wrote about his amazement that there were people alive who could remember when New York City was a small village.

Through his job as a printer, he grew to love how words looked on a page, the typeface in which they appeared, and the effects of various spatial arrangements. He said of his first published writing, "How it made my heart double-beat to see my piece on the pretty white paper, in nice type." Whitman was forced to go back to Long Island, where he had some family, and work as a schoolteacher, which was a form of damnation to him.

To get away from teaching, he tried to start his own newspaper, The Long-Islander, but the paper failed after a year. Whitman eventually moved back to New York City and began writing for a variety of newspapers. The price of newspapers in New York had fallen from ten cents to one or two cents as editors tried to reach a broader audience, and Whitman loved the penny papers' grubby, lively style. He wrote, "I like limber, lashing, fierce words. I like them in newspapers, courts, debates, congress…strong, cutting, beautiful rude words."

He experimented with a variety of popular styles of writing, and even wrote a novel concerning the evils of alcohol called Evans; or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (1842), which sold more than 20,000 copies, more than any other book that Whitman published in his lifetime. In the1850's, as the United States headed toward the Civil War, Whitman grew to believe that he should write something to hold his country together. He began to keep a series of notebooks, full of both poetry and prose, and in one of the earliest he wrote,

"I am the poet of the body
And I am the poet of the soul."

The first edition of his book Leaves of Grass came out on July 4th 1855. Whitman paid for its publication himself and arranged for it to be sold in different formats, at different prices, to reach as wide an audience as possible. He sent copies to many of the important writers and critics of his day, and only Ralph Waldo Emerson responded to the book. He wrote to Whitman, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Whitman later published Emerson's comment on the cover of Leaves of Grass, making it one of the first book blurbs in American publishing history.

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