Lessons From Whitman's Spider
Some time ago, I included a Walt Whitman line from one of his poems in a Daily Devo, and a reader reached out to share their favorite Whitman poem, "A Noiseless Patient Spider."
Whitman (1819-1892) was one of the most influential of all the American poets. He was known as the "father" of free verse and part of the movement known as Transcendentalism in 19th-century literature.
His poem "A Noiseless Patient Spider" highlights the depth employed in the transcendentalist approach to poetry, which takes the reader from the ordinary to the extraordinary in just a few lines.
It also reflects the longing that each of us has as human beings for deeper meaning, purpose, and direction in life:
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.
I remember reading and discussing this poem in an American Literature class eons ago, but I can't recall what I thought of it in my early twenties.
I'd like to think I had some deep and introspective thoughts about it then, but I wonder now if I summarily dismissed the poem as something an old man would say. It does have the feel of someone who has lived a little, doesn't it?
Whitman sees in the spider a metaphor for himself and, indeed, for all of us. Like that "patient spider," we cast out our gossamer threads, hoping that one of them will catch hold of something upon which we can be anchored.
This poem has a deeper meaning for those who read faith into it: a search for the Divine in the world around us.
Whitman paints a portrait that is not that dissimilar from the one painted by the ancient Hebrew poet from Psalm 8, who asks the question of God, "What is man, that you are mindful of him?"
According to Whitman, we fling our threads out into the void in hopes they will attach to something (or someone) upon which we can then build a bridge. Whitman doesn't go so far as to call what we are searching for "God," but the implication could be made as such.
Or perhaps what Whitman is searching for is Truth, not some relativized, subjective form of the idea of truth, but Truth itself. To which those of us who claim to follow Jesus might recall his own words about being the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
These threads of ours that we spin and send out in search of something upon which to hold fast are threads of hope if they are anything. These threads are tenuous and impermanent until they are attached and then added to.
This is the nature of hope, isn't it? It's the nature of hope that constantly seeks affirmation and realization, which can only come when it is connected to something meaningful.
And we never stop spinning this hope and letting it loose into the world.
We never stop trying to discover who we might become if we can only build a bridge to the next step in our journey. We never stop seeking the Divine anchor in our world to which we can attach our hope.
Because deep inside us, there is a place untouched by our own desperation and fear, a place that knows the One whom we are seeking is also seeking us. A place that knows we will be found.
May you spin your threads of hope with the confidence of those loved beyond love by a God who is for you and who finds you.
And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.