The textbook, Introduction to Poetry, 7 edition by XJ Kennedy, threw down a gauntlet and asked the reader to identify which of the two Walt Whitman poems was written first and which is the revised version.
I’m going to reserve my commentary for this post, instead I will post the two poems and the questions that the textbook asked.
So, before you rush off to do a google search on the two, read the poems and read the questions afterwards; take five minutes to think it through for yourself. If you guess correctly, congratulations (you don’t really win anything), but think about why you decided correctly – what stood out as working better in one poem over the other. What drew you in? What turned you off? What was it about the better poem made you feel connected to it? And if you were wrong (no shame, once again, you don’t win anything for being right, so who cares if you were wrong), think about why you chose one over the other – what made one feel more finished than the other? Why did the earlier draft sound clearer to your ear? What drew you emotionally into one draft over the other and why did you connect to that one? Sometimes being wrong can teach you more than being right. So, being wrong and knowing the correct answer, look at the two poems again and try to see how one is more polished than the other (or perhaps one for more over-worked to your ear than another).
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, detatched, 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.
The Soul, Reaching, Throwing Out for Love
by Walt Whitman
The Soul, reaching, throwing out for love,
As the spider, from some little promontory, throwing out filament
after filament, tirelessly out of itself, that one at least my catch
and form a link, a bridge, a connection
O I saw one passing along, saying hardly a word – yet full of love I
detected him, by certain signs
O eyes wishfully turning! O silent eyes!
For then I thought of you o’ver the world,
O latent oceans, fathomless oceans of love!
O waiting oceans of love! yearning and fervid! and of you sweet souls
perhaps in the future, delicious and long:
But Death, unknown on the earth – ungiven, dark here, unspoken,
You fathomless latent souls of love – you pent and unknown oceans
Here are the questions from the textbook (I rephrased them a bit)
1) Which poem is the early draft of the poem from Whitman’s notebook and which is the final draft published in 1871?
2) Which poem has rendered the central metaphor (the spider as compared to the soul) more vivid and exact? How much of each poem is devoted to the central metaphor?
3) Look at the lines of each poem, which one contains lines that seem distracting or non-essential?
Have fun with this.