A Spider Sonnet and Other Spidery Stanzas

White form of Flower Crab Spider

Dear Readers, my friend A alerted me to this poem by Robert Frost. I hadn’t come across it before, and found it rather intriguing.

Robert Frost – 1874-1963

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

Now, ‘heal-all’ is I think Prunella vulgaris (known as self-heal in the UK) and it’s usually blue, so a white flower would be most unusual.

I love the description of the ‘fat, dimpled spider’ and the moth with ‘dead wings carried like a paper kite’. I’m not sure about the whole design aspect though (says she with her scientist’s white coat on) – as we now know, even if the colour of the spider matches the flower that she’s on, it doesn’t seem to improve her hunting efficiency. And I suppose that the whole question of design implies that there’s someone ‘up there’ pulling the strings, bringing together the white flower, the moth and the spider (although his last sentence seems to imply that he doubts if even an all-seeing all-knowing deity could be bothered with a couple of invertebrates and a plant). I can see why my friend called it ‘intriguing’ because it opens up all kinds of questions about belief, causality and how the world works.

And clearly there’s something about spiders that makes humans philosophical. How about this, from Walt Whitman: it rather reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived at about the same time (1844 – 1889). Did one of them influence the other, I wonder?

A Noiseless Patient Spider
BY WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892)

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.

And how about this one, by E.B White, who wrote ‘Charlotte’s Web’, and who seems to have a special affinity with spiders? I love that this poem gives the spider agency. The last stanza is a jaw-dropper.

The Spider’s Web

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.

Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.

And finally, just to remind us of something fundamental, here’s a poem by Nikki Giovanni. The last lines open this up into a much greater question. How much better the world would be if we acted out of curiosity rather than fear!

By: Nikki Giovanni

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her
I don’t think
I’m allowed
To kill something
Because I am

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