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  • Raymond Obstfeld

Poem #1: Robert Graves' "The Cool Web"

Updated: Nov 5, 2019


"The Cool Web" captures the longing and yet contempt for innocence as well as the power of language to communicate intellect and its limitations in expressing basic animalistic passions.

"The Cool Web" by Robert Graves

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is, How hot the scent is of the summer rose, How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky, How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,

And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.

We spell away the overhanging night,

We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in, Retreat from too much joy or too much fear: We grow sea-green at last and coldly die In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession, Throwing off language and its watery clasp Before our death, instead of when death comes, Facing the wide glare of the children’s day, Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums, We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.


Why This Poem

It’s appropriate that I start my collection with “The Cool Web” because it’s about the limitations of language and art, yet because it uses stylized language to explain those limitations, it’s also a celebration of the power of art. In that way, the message can seem confusing and contradictory, but that’s the point: we are stuck in a cool web knowing that both options of unconscious passion and intellectual realization are destructive and unfulfilling in themselves.

I first came across this poem in the summer of 2016 while teaching a semester abroad in Cambridge, England. I found it in an anthology, Poems that Make Grown Men Cry. My process was to read the poems and dog-ear the ones that I found intriguing and which I would come back to for more intense scrutiny when I returned to the States. “The Cool Web” was not one of the poems I marked. Two years later I was back in Cambridge with a new group of students and the same book, which I had not looked at since returning to California. Determined to really delve into the book, I decided to read each poem again, ignoring the multiple poems I had marked for further investigation. After all, I was older and wiser now.

On the train to York with a group of students, I read the poem again and was instantly struck by the title. It sounded so contemporary, perhaps because of my association of the word “web” with the internet. What was “cool” doing in front of web? I read the first line and stopped cold over the phrase: “children are dumb.” It was so bold and cranky, reminding me of Philip Larkin’s opening of “This Be the Verse”: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad…” I was hooked.

What the Poem Means to Me

I was playing volleyball with some of my students in Jesus Green park in Cambridge one summer evening in 2018 when a little boy, maybe two or three, ran full speed across the grass with such ferocity that I wondered if there was a wall in front of him he wouldn’t burst right through it. Then suddenly, he collapsed to the ground and started laughing uncontrollably. “To laugh like that,” I thought. “With no knowable reason or cause. Just because.” “The Cool Web” popped into my mind and I thought how he was like the “dumb” children in the poem who can express their emotions with unbridled passion, unfiltered by language cluttering their brains. And how the game of volleyball I was playing with my students was like language—a game with rules that is fun to play, but the rules are always in our heads. The “fun” has its limits. No matter how intense the game, we will never feel like that little boy rolling on the ground in spontaneous, unprovoked laughter.

The poem is a shot at the limitations of art, which as a writer, makes me both bristle in protest and nod in agreement. But, as much as I may occasionally miss the loss of such pure, distilled emotion, I don’t mourn it the way Graves does. In the end, it’s exhausting and repetitious—the way Rob describes dating in High Fidelity. So, language would be like marriage: a deeper, richer exploration of a relationship that at first is all emotion, but finds its form and power by being shaped by language, the way two hands shape clay on a spinning potter’s wheel.

The joys one gets from discussing and analyzing the experiences of life couldn’t exist without the nuances of language. Language impresses those ideas in the mind, makes them memorable. They teach us so that each new experience is informed by previous ones, thereby making life less repetitious, more surprising than the mundane loop of bursts of passion that dull with repetition.

Although Graves implies all that, his melancholy gives too much weight to the unarticulated emotion. Perhaps his horrific experiences as a soldier made him lose faith in the worth of human intellect and how we use language to justify atrocities. On the other hand, the fact that he wrote the poem is a glimmer of hope that language has the power to affect and therefore change humanity.

All the biography you need to know for this poem

Robert Graves (1895-1985) enlisted in the army in 1914 to fight in World War I. He published his first book of poetry in 1916. After nearly dying from a shell fragment through his lung, he was sent back to England for treatment but suffered greatly from PTSD: “Very thin, very nervous and with about four years' loss of sleep to make up, I was waiting until I got well enough to go to Oxford on the Government educational grant. I knew that it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life. My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping. I felt ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy, but had sworn on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone's orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing.” Graves published this poem in 1927, when he was 32 years old.

Line-by-Line Musings

The Cool Web (title)

This title is detached and analytical in tone, but poetic in using a metaphor. Most important, it immediately captures the reader’s attention by juxtaposing two words that don’t seem to belong together. “Cool” would refer to the intellect because it is removed from passion. But the intellect can be a trap in that it keeps you from fully surrendering to passion—it even warns you against the seduction of passion, which is in itself a seduction.

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,

“Children are dumb”: Conveys the double meaning that children are dumb (mute)—unable to articulate (“to say”)—but also dumb (stupid) because they lack the intellect to understand their sensual experiences. The narrator seems both contemptuous and jealous of this.

“how hot the day is”: The temperature is something so simple, yet uncomfortable, that it makes the children seem even more animalistic that they can’t communicate this. But underneath this simple statement about the weather may lurk a more dire assessment about how each day is filled with the heat of passion and its awful consequences, such as war, violence, exploitation, etc.

How hot the scent is of the summer rose,

“hot” scent is a surprising phrase, which clearly isn’t pleasant. The child may be surprised by the scent because they expect the rose to smell sweet and now don’t know how to articulate their reaction. This perhaps implies the rotten smell of the overripe rose as the summer progresses.

How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,

“the black wastes” may refer to the smoke of the industrialized city. But it might also suggest the “dreadful” feeling of having wasted our days with mundane pursuits of adulthood that lack passion. Reminds me of the sad and ominous title of the novel and film Remains of the Day, with the butler Stevens who has squandered his life in servitude of ideals he didn’t question and ignoring his own passions to end up alone.

How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

He repeats “dreadful,” which is unusual. Is he making a connection with the waste of the previous line: that soldiers’ lives are wasted in war? He definitely is saying that soldiers are dreadful, not because they are soldiers, but because they symbolize the presence of threat, of war, of early death that awaits the “dumb” children who are thrown into war without questioning the reasons and without power to resist.

The soldiers are “tall” as a contrast to the small children, implying the kids’ inevitable fate when they grow tall to be soldiers, whether literally or figuratively (soldiers to the norms of society).

“drumming” is surprising. You might expect marching, but this word evokes the sound and the mindlessness, the mechanical cadence of their existence. “Drum” also echoes the sound of “dumb” to suggest the children’s dark future.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,

He could have chosen other words instead of “speech”: “language,” “words,” but speech carries with it the implication of sound not just the theory of language. It also has the idea of a speech, an organized presentation of language to persuade (which is what this poem is).

“to chill the angry day” lauds speech as a balm to soothe us from our emotional reactions to the day.

And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.

In the first stanza, he refers to the rose’s “hot” scent, now he describes it as “cruel.” Is it cruel because its decaying smell reminds us of death and our own mortality, which “dumb” children would not be aware of?

We spell away the overhanging night,

“spell” has two meanings: 1. Spell as in language, spelling words, the mechanics of language. 2. A magic spell, as in language is an incantation to remove the sting of life through intellectual examination.

“overhanging” suggests the smoky pollution still in the air (the “black wastes” of the third line), but also how death—night—hangs over us throughout our lives.

The line suggests a kind of “whistling past the graveyard” idea.

We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

The repetition of “spell” duplicates the previous stanza’s repetition of “dreadful.”

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,

This phrase combines several ideas. Calling the web “cool” to say it dampens our passion, our id. “Web of language” implies we are stuck, hindered by language, that language imprisons us from natural state of fright.

I like the phrase “winds us in” because it reminds me of a fish being reeled in. But if I think of it mechanically, then “winds us in” has the feel of a watch or wind-up toy, with speech making us more like mechanisms because it harnesses our passions.

Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:

“Retreat” implies that we want to run from our emotional selves, regardless of whether it’s joy or fear, because we can’t control our reactions.

We grow sea-green at last and coldly die

“sea-green” could just mean the color one gets when they are deathly ill because it suggests the color of the skin when one gets sick. But “sea” might also mean the sea that is the origin of all life and to which we return after death. Since it is the origin, does it also imply that language is a perversion of life, the thing that kills us inside?

“coldly die” projects a bleak death—one that suggests stark inevitability rather than rich fulfillment. The narrator seems to mourn the loss of that passion.

I’m reminded of a Philip Larkin poem, “I Saw a Girl Dragged by the Wrists,” which begins as startlingly as “The Cool Web” but turns out to also be a meditation on lost passion (important note: the girl is not in danger, she’s actually laughing because she’s being playful with her boyfriend, which is part of what causes the narrator’s reaction):

I see a girl dragged by the wrists Across a dazzling field of snow And there is nothing in me that resists. Once it would not be so; Once I should choke with powerless jealousies; But now I seem devoid of subtlety, As simple as the things I see, Being no more, no less, than two weak eyes.

In brininess and volubility.

I had to look up “volubility.” It means “the quality of talking fluently, readily, or incessantly; talkativeness.”

“brininess” is the quality of being salty.

We “coldly die” in a stew of salt/brininess (from which we originated) and language/volubility (which is the source of our emotional death).

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,

“let our tongues” indicates that we still have the power to reverse the process of being civilized through language. Using the tongue here makes it so visceral, this hidden muscle that is the source of much sensual pleasure and of the harnessing of sensual pleasure.

Throwing off language and its watery clasp

“throwing off language” is such a physical act, suggesting that language is the rider clinging and in charge—and we humans merely the rough beasts.

“watery clasp” may refer back to the earlier “sea-green” and “brininess.” It also describes language as something that drowns us (that can’t be thrown off), at least the untethered emotional part of us.

Before our death, instead of when death comes,

The first “death” warns us that the constraints of language is a slow but early death of the spirit, while the second death is the actual physical one. Reminds me of Robert Frost’s double meaning of death in “After Apple-Picking”:

One can see what will trouble

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

Were he not gone,

The woodchuck could say whether it's like his

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

Or just some human sleep.

Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,

I love this phrase “wide glare” to describe a child’s view of the day as an all-encompassing bright glare in which shapes—and other people’s concerns, feelings, etc.—are indistinguishable and therefore inconsequential blurs without language to give them shape and meaning.

Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,

Interesting how “rose” and “drums” are without adjectives. Only “sky” is saddled with “dark” in front of it to contrast the “wide glare” of what the children see with the dark sky overhanging them that they don’t see because they are “dumb.”

We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Neither choice—death by high-octane emotion or death by over-analyzing (what I’m doing right now?)—leads to a happy outcome. Maybe the narrator is saying we’re screwed no matter what we do. Or maybe he’s saying that awareness of these extremes can allow us to find a balance to create a life in which we are still surprised and delighted by life, yet still able to temper our emotions. We avoid becoming addicted and therefore enslaved by either end of the spectrum.

Compare this with the sci-fi movie Serenity. The title suggests exactly what goes wrong when a Utopia is built in which civilized people seek serenity to the point they no longer feel anything, not even the impulse to remain alive (as opposed to the beastly Reavers who over-feel to the point of destroying all around them).

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1 Comment

Oct 24, 2019

This will send me to compare with the other WWI poets. The horrors of his experiences in the war are clearly behind some of the images. (I think I'm going to enjoy this blog of yours!)

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