Search This Blog

26 January 2014

The Spider holds a Silver Ball

The Spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands —
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn of Pearl — unwinds —

He plies from nought to nought —
In unsubstantial Trade —
Supplants our Tapestries with His —
In half the period —

An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light —
Then dangle from the Housewife's Broom —
His Boundaries — forgot —

                                                                        F513 (1863)  J605

I love the first stanza with the dancing spider and his silver ball. The mental picture I get is of a cobweb spider (family Theridiidae) with its large round abdomen. It extrudes silk, its "Yarn of Pearl", through spinnerets, pulling it here and there with the comb feet of its hindermost legs as it constructs its web. It may be, though, that Dickinson had a different image in mind as her spider is using its "unperceived Hands" to hold its ball of yarn. Sometimes the house spider can be seen carrying its egg sac, which can indeed seem to be a silver ball of pearly yarn. This makes more visual than biologic sense as the spider doesn't draw silk for webs from the egg sac.  
Cobweb weaver

        There's a Dickinsonian twist at the end of this droll poem. In the first two stanzas the spider seems almost magical, a sorcerer casting his spells. His web is so airy it seems to be anchored on nothing, fastened from "nought to nought", his yarn so gossamer it seems "unsubstantial". And yet within an hour he manages to construct a web that overshadows the household curtains. He creates a little continent spanning the ocean of space in the corners and windows. When the sun, or even a candle, shines on it, the web can be seen in all its glory.
    The spider's construction is short-lived, however, for within the hour a diligent housewife will take a broom to it and there, dangling from the bristles, is the spider's once-grand continent, its outline and boundaries now broken and forgotten. Readers can feel both sad and happy about this: sad because it is easy to root for the diligent, creative, dancing spider; happy because the house isn't going to look all cobwebby and spooky.
    On balance, I'm afraid the Housewife doesn't come out looking so good. Her brutal broom has destroyed a delicate and marvelous creation. Dickinson uses the admiring term "Continents of Light" to describe it and one suspects the housewife won't garner this sort of praise. As soon as I read the phrase, though, I thought of satellite images of earth at night. Our continents look just like webs of light. 

Does the spider represent anything or is this just a delightful sketch along the lines of "A Bird came down the Walk" 
(F359)? The spider is male while most weavers are depicted as female. Is Dickinson giving a note of sympathy to a man, perhaps a fellow poet, who creates a lovely work only to have it dismantled by an impatient wife? Or is she referring to the process of creativity or poetry itself? Constructed seemingly on nothing, spun from some inner silk, it "rear[s] supreme" for maybe an hour of glory before the needs of the curtain require its destruction. Dickinson might be thinking of her own poems and ruefully considering the response she would get if she stopped her baking and housewifery to concentrate solely on her art.
    She did submit some poems rather early on to a respected author and man of letters, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, but although he was warm and somewhat supportive, he reportedly criticized her structure, meter, and rhyme. He was one to value the curtain over the unexpected web.

I am so enthusiastic about the first stanza, though, and the image of "continents of light", that I happily choose to think of this work as a spider poem.  

JUST FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE: Here is a great animation by Dr. Sameul Zschokke that traces just how a spider builds its web

As a final note, this poem isn't necessarily a final product. Dickinson noted several alternate or variant words: "Theories" for "Continents"; "perished" for "dangle"; and "Sophistries" for "Boundaries". Cumulatively, they suggest that the spider may represent the sort of philosopher or poet whose ideas are founded on nothing and whose arguments are falsely reasoned. Let them perish by the broom!


  1. A beautiful little poem -- well analyzed. I love how ED describes the transparency of the web as an invisible world with commerce and continents and boundaries that is a complete world -- but not our world (unperceived hands, plies from nought to nought -- In unsubstantial Trade, Continents of Light).

  2. I wonder if at least part of this poem was thematically inspired by the Greek myth of Arachne and Athena's competition over tapestry weaving. There too Arachne's tapestry meets Athena's wrath... However, ED uses the masculine pronoun, and Arachne was was a female. The similarities are pretty strong, but the pronoun is wrong.

    1. That pronoun is a big consideration. First, most webs are built by the female. Second, weaving is traditionally considered a womanly art. That's why it's tempting to think of the spider as a bad philosopher or poet.

      I like your Arachne and Athena reference. As you say, though, it highlights the issue of the spider being male.

      If, as some critics suggest, Dickinson is referring to herself as a creative spider (whose works are dashed), then making the spider male is simply a mask.

  3. Thank you! Your analysis was a good addition to my own ideas on the poem. I quite like it, as it is a fabulous example of how much attention Miss Dickinson paid to the 'little world', even if she - being a poet - often personified and did not stay true to scientific knowledge (we have today).
    A thought on the pronoun that might help: Looking at other poems about arthropods of hers, as far as I recall, she always uses male pronouns for them - whereas flowers are always female.

  4. Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” won’t come out for a few years, (first appearance 1868) but is another of the uncanny parallels between Whitman and Dickinson.

  5. "Theories of light" and "sophistries forgot" is illuminating for this poem, and for YOUR theory. Interesting that she chose words that hewed this poem closer to an actual spider than a metaphorical one.

    Thanks for the added video above. That was a joy to watch.

    1. Yes, the 'Theories' and 'sophistries' are very human rather than spider. Maybe Dickinson (now that you mention it) has a poetaster in mind but cleverly and perhaps even smugly enmeshes him in a web of her so very superior poetry -- and also creating a wonderful spider sketch.

  6. ED can be excused for calling her bees and spiders “Him”. We now know that all the foraging bees she saw in her garden were females, as were the web-building spiders in her house.

    “It is generally accepted in the arachnological literature that adult female web-building spiders build species-typical webs while adult males do no web-building other than that required for courtship and sperm induction”

    Andrea J. Hirscheimer, Robert B. Suter. 1985. The Journal of Arachnology 13(3): 396-398.

    ED's poetic license gives her a Get Out of Jail card.

  7. It's a pleasure to read a sequence of five positive or at least hopeful poems.

    F509.A curious Cloud surprised the Sky,
    F510.Of Brussels — it was not —
    F511.He found my Being — set it up —
    F512.Unto my Books — so good to turn —
    F513.The Spider holds a Silver Ball

    ED’s gaining ground against her cycles of depression.

  8. I enjoyed your observation but isn't the spider a male? I thought that females created webs so can the spider creating a web be a metaphor of some kind?

    1. That's a good question. I can't muster up a better answer than what is in my explication and, better yet, in the readers' comments. The spider can be read metaphorically either way, I think.

  9. My commentary: The spider is the least natural living thing, and it holds the silver ball like Atlas does the world, “in unperceived Hands.” This designer is not interested in creating colors, like a painter, but in healing (a hunger). His “Yarn of Pearl” is like Walt Whitman’s “gossamer thread.” It is like a black hole in modern terminology. He reminds me of the reader: if a reader is reading without purpose, then this proves that the author’s words have no purpose. The ”Tapestries” nevertheless have a use, so they make Oscar Wilde’s motto: “all art is quite useless” irrelevant in Dickinson’s poem. There is an element of Macbeth in this poem too, of Macbeth’s (and Shakespeare’s) great imagination. The contrast with the black hole is light, since black holes suck in things, whereas light sends forth itself outwardly. Both are the inverse spiralings of each other. There is a feeling of friendship as Dickinson speaks about the Housewife who has her Broom. And, we all of us need to forget our boundaries too, so we can make more time to spend in solitude with our Genius.

    = Angel Jennifer with me