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.
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!