It has only been three months into the year and already my reading list, the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet where I record everything and anything I read, is already past 1700 entries. The reason for this is Graduate School and Emily Dickinson. I had no idea at the start of the semester that I would be reading 127 poems a week and that, by the end of the Spring term, I will have read the entirety of Dickinson’s poetry. While at first I bawked at this, now that I am in the tenth week, I honestly cannot believe that I fretted over this. The bookmark has moved towards the base of the book faster than I expected, and there are now many sunny afternoons spent watching the sunlight through leaves in between the poems of bees.
My confidence is not only because I am a seasoned reader and writer, but because there is so much to love about Emily Dickinson as an author. While her work contumaciously avoids any kind of clear interpretation her language and imagery reveal her deep passion for the natural landscape of the American territory and the wonders of ecology that are observable to man.
One such wonder is the spider.
I recognize that to many of my readers that spiders are those globs of mush smeared onto the back cover of your Dad’s National Geographic, or else that impacted mush on the bottom of your shoe. Spiders are something to crushed and eliminated rather than fascinating creatures that can reveal beautiful philosophic truths to human beings because they have hair and multiple eyes and those creepy legs and just blech. The reader would, however, be doing a disservice to themselves by simply taking this attitude and never getting the chance to observe a spider spinning a web.
In my R.W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, while I was reading for the weeks assignments and quietly sipping some Irish Breakfast tea on my back porch, yes I’m that kind of nerd, I read a small three line poem that stopped me and required three or four more repeated readings.
A Spider sewed at night
Without a light
Upon an arc of white.
If ruff it was of dame
Or shroud of gnome,
Himself, himself inform.
Was physiognomy. (F #1373)
I’m going to try and contain my nerd powers that be because my dad is an exterminator and I’ve been learning about bugs ever since I was a kid, I could literally talk all day about them. The first thing that needs to be corrected is that a spider isn’t a bug it’s an arachnoid which is different than an insect because arachnoids are defined by the fact they have eight legs rather than six. Okay. I got that out. Let’s move on.
Along with the poems I have to read for class I also have to listen to the recorded lectures, one of which was a explication of this exact poem, and during my professor’s lecture she mentioned the name Whitman. Now that name has begun to assume more and more significance within the last year, for on the one hand my recognition of my sexuality is tied up in the figure of Whitman, I recently received confirmation that a poem I wrote about Whitman is going to be published, and I hope to be teaching American literature and so I’ve been beefing up more and more on Whitman trying to just absorb the man. Still though as soon as she said the name Whitman I raised my hand (she said something along the vein of “My Whitman people raise your hands and so I did) because Whitman as a poet has always spoken to me and his poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” has been one of my favorites. Both of these poems became stuck in my head because of personal experience. I’ll cite Whitman’s poem first and then describe my personal artistic attachment to spiders:
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.
Last year my wife and I moved into a small house my parents purchased for us to live in while we are going to Graduate school (anyone who says White privilege doesn’t exist is full of it). We settled in while we were in that early phase when we’re trying to figure out the rhythms of marriage while balancing still being an individual, and one of the ways my wife coped with it was purchasing plants to pretty up the yard. As so often happens however, my wife bought the plants, took care of them for a week, and then quickly moved onto her next project. The plants wilted away on the porch and so one day I began to spritz them with water every night before I crawled back to the hole of my office to write. One night I looked up at the wall of black that starts at the end of our porch and I saw an orb weaver the size of my thumb had taken up residence near the electric ceiling fan.
Its body was wrapped in a Tawney down splashed with puddles of white. It danced on the air while its legs kicked up invisible strings into the night.
My attempt at poetry here is merely to suggest that the image of such a large and unique creature creating in the face of seeming infinity was arresting. I couldn’t move for fear that it would run away and so I sat Indian style watching it.
Every night it would secure a line against the wooden column supporting the patio roof and it would begin the long, delicate affair of making it’s web. Watching her night after night re-create her web, and I say she because typically females tend to live longer than males for biological reasons,* I was able to marvel at how marvelously complex is the nature of a spider’s web. The foundations are carefully selected and established before the final geometric pattern is begun and the actual process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. I was often unable to watch her finish her web, grad school has a way of eating up your time, but I would wait long enough for the “arc of white” for spider’s silk has an indescribable sheen when the light hits it just right.
Looking back to Dickinson and Whitman these two poems struck me for their sublime vision. The orb weaver, with its body of fluffy amber, seemed to float in the sea of black that was the evening night broken only by the cheap light of my back porch. Whitman’s spider, as it constructs its web, is “venturing, throwing, seeking “until finally it “catches somewhere,” and Dickinson’s spider likewise creates with hesitancy thus creating in the face of “immortality.”
I believe there’s a reason the spider captures the mindset of these two poets and I believe it’s for the same reason I watched that orb weaver night after night work her wonders. The spider is an arthropod and so at first we are unnerved for such organisms disturb us as a species, they’re cold killers that make sticky gross webs. But upon reflection and observation the spider is a natural wonder, for even without human reason or understanding of mathematics and architecture the spider is able to create a technologically sound and beautiful masterpiece seemingly on the surface of reality. The spider at night crafting its web acts only out of impulse, and it’s that impulse that speaks to artists for they, in their own way, try to make something just as profound and spellbinding.
The artist attempts to fill up the darkness of infinity with their work, and while they may not entirely succeed, their efforts are worth it for that “arc of white” and also for the plump abdomen of the weaver as she rests in the middle of her work, waiting patiently for her dinner.
The “biological reasons” cited above are related to making babies. Now I am not an expert on arachnids, and each species of spider is different, but it is not uncommon for female spiders to mate with males then after kill them and eat them. The reason for this is not because he was bad in bed, though that certainly could be the case, it has more to do with the fact that after fertilization the female spider makes the egg sac, a large clump of webs that wrap a cluster of eggs, and once she has finished this she is usually so tired that she either dies or goes into a kind of coma until her babies wake up. This in turn can often eave the mother as food for her children, or else she may just watch them be born and then make a new web…of course she could also eat the babies too if they don’t get away.
Isn’t learning fun!
Whitman’s poem was cited originally from poetryfoundation.org, but also from the Norton Critical Edition. If you don’t have the book you can follow the link below:
Emily Dickinson’s poem was reproduced from the Franklin Edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.
***Writer’s Final Note***
I recognise that not everyone has the same philosophical outlook concerning insects and arachnids that I do, and especially when talking about spiders there exists the potential to creep people out. So, before you leave, here’s a spider with maracas instead of pedipalps. Enjoy.