Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

There is another ambiguity of word meanings: “Dying” probably does not mean physical death so much as it does mental or emotional or spiritual death. Whether one smothers in pointless words or becomes violently psychotic, one’s identity is lost.

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Graves had a curious attitude toward his war neurosis as it related to his poetic powers. Although he was acquainted with and much influenced by a prominent Cambridge neurologist and psychologist, W. H. R. Rivers, Graves avoided actual treatment for his war neurasthenia. Rivers was a Freudian psychoanalyst and a specialist in that kind of neurosis as well as in the relationship between the troubled subconscious and poetic creativity.

While Graves did not go into psychoanalysis, sometimes called the “talking cure,” he believed, at least for some years, that writing poetry was a way of working out one’s psychological problems. He believed that a poem must originate as an internal conflict of opposing forces, which one seeks to resolve in the act of expressing them. Thus, poetry might serve as a therapeutic exercise and might also help the reader who shared the same internal conflicts.

Of possible relevance to this particular poem, Graves worried at times that if he actually did cure his psychological difficulties, he might no longer be inspired to write poetry. Thus, writing poetry as a “talking cure,” if actually successful, might deliver him into the stagnant, dead sea imagined in this poem, where the web of language has destroyed him as a poet.

In later years, Graves discarded his psychological explanation of poetic creativity, but not before he had produced considerable poetry haunted by subjective feelings of guilt, fear, despair, and a sense of entrapment. He seldom wrote poems actually about war experience, preferring the traditional subject matter of the Gothic mode: haunted houses, nightmarish castles, lust as destructive to romantic love, and the sinking into insanity (“The Pier Glass,” “The Castle,” “The Succubus,” “Down”). “The Cool Web” demonstrates a significant step away from the emotionalism of the Gothic mode, or perhaps a kind of graduation into another kind of problem: how to be more cool and objective while retaining the sensitivity and feeling appropriate and necessary to a poet.

Graves eventually found the orientation that fulfilled his twin needs of an anchor for his runaway emotions and a suitably romantic and inspiring muse in the mythology of the White Goddess. Not only was she (in Freudian terms) the anima of his subconscious, she was also a pervasive presence in ancient myth and religion, which became a fascinating subject for scholarly research. Moreover, the ancient goddess rules over both life and death, retaining a certain cruelty and sacrifice as the price for the gift of love and inspiration. As the oracle for the White Goddess, Robert Graves evaded both of the fates he imagined in “The Cool Web.” He neither succumbed to madness, nor drowned as a poet in the cool web of language.

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