In ‘The Cool Web’ Graves explores themes of human experience, language, and communication. He uses figurative language and interesting, emotionally wrought images to depict the usefulness of speech. With it, one can “dull” their experiences enough to where they are easily processed. This raises questions about the broader dulling of life.
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Summary of The Cool Web
Throughout this poem, the speaker uses a variety of images to depict the ways that language benefits human beings. Through language, humans are able to define their experiences in a way that allows them to process them adequately. Without it, we would go mad and die. But, Graves adds in the middle of the poem that with too much mastery of language will also come death. Language is a blessing, but the speaker is also very aware of the way that it can overly blunt that which human beings might be better off experiencing.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of The Cool Web
‘The Cool Web’ by Robert Graves is a four stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first three stanzas are four lines long, making them quatrains, and the final fourth stanza is six lines long, a sestet. The quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. While the final sestet follows a different rhyme scheme of ABCDED. The pairs of rhymes at the ends of the first three stanzas are known as heroic couplets. This feature of the poem, in addition to the use of iambic pentameter, meaning that Graves was interested in structuring this piece in a traditionally, and recognizably classical way. This is something that should be considered along with the language focused content.
Literary Devices in The Cool Web
Graves makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Cool Web’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, imagery, and alliteration. The first of these, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “How” and “How dreadful the” at the beginning of lines two through three of the first stanza. Another example is “We spell away the” in lines three and four of the second stanza.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. There are some very poignant images in this poem. For example, the “black wastes of evening sky,” referring to the darkness that takes over when the sun sets, and this line from the end of the poem: “Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “dark” and “drums” as well as “doubt” and “die” in the last two lines of the fourth stanza.
The Metaphor of The Cool Web
One final important literary device is a metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. The “cool web” of language is the primary metaphor at work in this poem. The speaker compares language, which is an amorphous, ever-changing human creation, to a spider web. It “cools” our experiences so that we can better articulate them and keep from going mad. It is also as multifaceted and entrancing as a web.
The web, Graves writes in the poem, is part of all human life. Adults get caught up in the web in their desire to “Retreat from too much joy or too much fear”. Children, who are referenced a couple of times in the poem, do not have the same control over language. Therefore, their experiences are much more poignant.
Analysis of The Cool Web
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.
In the first stanza of ‘The Cool Web,’ the speaker begins by making a blunt statement about children and speech. Graves uses the word “dumb” to refer to muteness, or being unable to speak. The next three lines build on the first. Without the addition of the phrase “children are dumb to say” the speaker expands the subjects and senses by referring to a rose, the sky, and tall soldiers.
These are interesting and complex images that are meant to tap into a variety of human senses. It is also interesting to note that these children can’t “say“ how things feel. This is an example of synesthesia, relating one sentence to another such as, hearing colors and seeing sounds. Graves does not immediately reveal why the children are unable to describe their experiences, but their inability to speak soon turns into a human inability to articulate complex experiences.
It is important to note at this point that the image of the tall soldiers walking by at the end of the first stanza likely has its source in Robert Graves’s own personal experiences as a soldier in World War I. It is easy to imagine that the poet was tapping into his own inability to articulate his emotional experiences when writing this poem. It’s not just children who have difficulty verbalizing their experiences.
But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes into the purpose of “speech”. He refers to its complexities but also its simplicities. It is something that human beings have that allows us to break down events that occur around us and understand them better. There is an example of this in the second line of the stanza with a reference to the “rose’s cruel sent”. Our language has a direct impact on how we experience our day-to-day life.
This is seen again in the next two lines as the poet uses the phrase “we spell away“. As if speaking an incantation, our human words have the ability to double the “overhanging night“ and “the soldiers and the fright“.
There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
In brininess and volubility.
The third stanza gets a little bit more complex. It is at this point that the poet brings in the phrase “cool web“ from what he got the title of the poem. He describes language as a “cool web“ in which humans can find themselves. Language gives human beings the ability to deal with painful and complicated experiences in a way that makes sense. This line is a metaphor that compares a spiderweb to the web of language.
But, while language is able to dull terrible experiences it is also able to make the positive emotional experience less poignant. This is depicted through the image of human beings growing “sea-green at last and coldly“ dying. We become sick, cold, and sink back into the sea and its “brininess“. We also have to deal with volubility or the mastering of language. Once this occurs experience becomes more and more controlled.
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.
The final stanza of the poem is two lines longer than the previous three stanzas. In the last section, the speaker comes down on the side of the language. He knows that if we lost the ability to speak then we would go mad. Our inability to break down our experiences in a way that helps us understand the word leads us to a mental world that is too complicated and overwhelming to process. We shall, “no doubt“ go mad.