By Claire Stubblefield
Irony and Immortality: An Explication of A. E. Stallings’ “Arachne Gives Thanks to Athena”
It is no punishment. They are mistaken –
The brothers, the father. My prayers were answered.
I was all fingertips. Nothing was perfect:
What I had woven, the moths will have eaten;
At the end of my rope was a noose’s knot.
Now it’s no longer the thing, but the pattern,
And that will endure, even though webs be broken.
I, if not beautiful, am beauty’s maker.
Old age cannot rob me, nor cowardly lovers.
The moon once pulled blood from me. Now I pull silver.
Here are the lines I pulled from my own belly –
Hang them with rainbows, ice, dewdrops, darkness.
A. E. Stallings
Poets have often written of the idea that in one’s poetry, one can be made immortal – going back even to Shakespeare’s words in Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” The poem “Arachne Gives Thanks to Athena” is another example of this kind of approach to poetry. In this poem, the speaker can be assumed to be Arachne, who was, according to the myth, a weaver in a town in ancient Greece. Too proud of her abilities, she was challenged to a contest by Athena, and when Arachne proved herself Athena’s equal, Athena’s rage was so great that Arachne tried to hang herself, but Athena instead turned her into a spider, that she might weave the rest of her days. The title’s implication, therefore, that Arachne is in fact grateful for this “punishment” is indicative of the ironic tone that pervades the poem’s first half. Despite this ironic beginning, however, through the progression of the poem Arachne seems to experience a change of heart and becomes aware of the immortality of which she is now capable through her ability to weave not tapestries for men, but webs of natural splendor.
Of course, the most apparent figurative maneuver in the poem is the allusion to the Greek myth of Arachne and Athena. Beyond this allusion, however, the poetic language gives hints early on of the ironic tone. In particular, in the third line of the first stanza the speaker claims, “I was all fingertips” – a humorous image if one considers the resemblance between a hand “walking” around on a flat surface and the similar movements of a spider. Thus here, where the poem is addressing the serious subject of this woman’s transformation, it presents the reader with a cathartic opportunity to release some of the poem’s gravity and replace it with ironic humor. Returning to the first line, however, the irony actually begins with the opening statement that “it is no punishment.” Of course the transformation was intended as a punishment, but Arachne here seems to be holding defiantly to her refusal to allow herself to be punished – an act that fits well with the arrogance attributed to her in the Greek myth. The claim in the stanza’s fourth line that “What I have woven, the moths will have eaten” is a conflict with the mindset Arachne must have had as a weaver, for surely she could not have believed her work to be so transient or she would not have continued with it. She says it in irony here, then, but in the very next line we are presented with what appears to be the poem’s turning point – or rather, Arachne’s turning point within the poem. The stanza ends with the line, “At the end of my rope was a noose’s knot,” a claim that shows Arachne’s desperation within the context of her contest with Athena, a desperation that is highlighted for us by the abruptness of the image with which we’re confronted. This abruptness stems from the combination of both the verbal hardness of the alliterated “n” sound and the figurative hardness of this death image. However, the line also seems to demonstrate a change of heart as Arachne reflects back on her old life from where she now stands. The following stanzas further detail this assertion.
Beginning in the first line of the second stanza, the tone of the poem has changed. It is now a more genuine voice, to which we are clued in by the use of the word “now” to open the stanza. This single word holds great import, for it alerts us to the fact that something has changed – there was a time before, but we have “now” moved on to something else, presumably through some sort of growth. So with this mindset we take in the second stanza: “Now it’s no longer the thing, but the pattern, / And that will endure, even though webs be broken.” The poem prepares us in this short two-line stanza for the very different tone we are about to encounter in the final stanza, in which Arachne seems to take note of her situation in a much more authentically grateful way, rather than with the ironic tone of gratitude with which the poem began.
The third stanza begins with the same then vs. now contrast as the second stanza: “I, if not beautiful, am beauty’s maker.” The repetition of beautiful/beauty in this first line emphasizes for us both Arachne’s acceptance of her new situation, and her authentic gratitude for the role she now plays. The same can be said of the repetition of pull/pulled in the stanza’s third line: “The moon once pulled blood from me. Now I pull silver.” The movement has been toward positive growth and change, so that blood has been replaced with the silvery sheen of a spider’s webs. The third stanza also plays more with rhyme than do the first two; the stanza’s first three lines end with “maker,” “lovers,” and “silver.” The effect of this rhyme is to give the stanza a more cohesive feel, and to give the impression that Arachne is more pulled together at this point, more fully aware of her situation and in that way, again, more authentic in her words. The stanza ends with the words, “Here are the lines I pulled from my own belly– / Hang them with rainbows, ice, dewdrops, darkness.” In the double entendre of the phrase “Hang them”, the speaker presents us yet again with the image of death with which the first stanza ended. This time, however, Arachne’s attempt at death is replaced with the “lines” she now produces, lines identified with rainbows, ice, dewdrops, and darkness – all elements of nature that thus hang naturally. Here, this kind of natural hanging, like that of a rainbow hanging in the sky, is contrasted to the very unnatural hanging that would have been Arachne’s suicide. In this way, Arachne seems to praise the natural order over her own failure – even as she excelled in her weaving – in the human sphere.
Even the poem’s meter and line structure seem to reflect this praise of the natural order, as they mirror the ways in which a spider’s web fits together. The stress pattern is identical in the first and last stanzas, with the exception of the last line. Even the two lines of the second stanza mirror directly the pattern of the first two lines of the other stanzas. In this way, the poem is patterned to reflect the methodical intricacy of a spider’s web. Interestingly, a part of this pattern is found in the trochaic last foot of every line, which stands in contrast to the mainly dactylic pattern throughout the rest of the poem. This pattern actually serves to highlight a larger effect created by the structure of the lines themselves. Because the lines are so patterned, they are all of similar length, and there is no enjambment, as each line concludes a thought or phrase in itself. In effect, this sense of each line as a unit, combined with the trochee at the end of the line to make that small distinction before moving on to the next line, creates the feel of a spider spinning its web, moving back and forth, one line at a time. It gives the poem a kind of coherence and, again, reflects the praise of the natural order of things.
Immortality is, of course, not a part of the natural cycle; death is a part of life. Neither are lines of poetry considered to be a part of nature in the way that a spider’s web would be. However, through this poem, Stallings presents us with Arachne’s realization that despite – or rather due to – her seeming punishment, she can realize a new potential for immortality in a way that she could not have before. The tapestries she wove as a human were, as she says, bound to be eaten by moths and destroyed. A spider’s webs, however, are a part of nature and the natural cycle in a way that tapestries are not. As a weaver of webs rather than of tapestries, Arachne could become a part of nature – for though a spider may die and a web be destroyed, these are both elements of nature at large, and nature, in itself, lives on.