The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem of four stanzas makes an unusual observation about the relationship between the emotions and the language used to express them. The cool web of the title is a metaphor for language itself, which, rather than intensifying and clarifying what one feels, may actually dull or cool the passions.

The first quatrain presents the plight of those who presumably have limited ability to put feeling into words: “Children are dumb to say how hot the day is.” The other three lines name other experiences that induce emotion in children: the scent of roses, the darkening of the evening sky, and the sound of drums and marching soldiers.

The second stanza states that “we,” presumably meaning adults, though it might have more specialized application to poets, have speech, with which to cool the heat of the day, dull the scent of the rose, and “spell away” our fears of approaching night and marching soldiers.

The third stanza characterizes this effect of language as a “Retreat from too much joy or too much fear,” as though these contradictory possibilities were equally ominous to the fragile psyche. Yet such protection produces its own disaster: “We grow sea-green at last and coldly die/ In brininess and volubility.”

The last stanza, having six lines, suggests an alternative to this miserable drowning. “But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,/ Throwing off language and its watery clasp” before we...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem achieves a remarkable tension between meaning and form, and form seems to “win,” successfully submerging the desperation of the message. No matter what the words mean, the technical control is precise. The argument proceeds with the cool logic of a deductive syllogism, with each stanza expressing one aspect of the case. The final line wraps up the analysis, stated in impersonal tones almost like the written report of a doctor who does not personally know the patient and perhaps does not really care to know him. If a certain thing occurs, then the patient will go mad and “die that way.” This objective approach to the matter seems to imply that, since everyone dies anyway, there is no real cause for alarm. Yet both methods of dying sound horrible.

Under the calming influence of language, the dying is described in images of suffocation and drowning. The web of language “winds us in”; we are trapped, turn green, and “coldly die” in “brininess” (somehow worse than fresh water) and “volubility,” suggesting some degeneration into meaningless babble. In fact, of the two ways of dying, that sounds almost worse than going mad—except that the mad death apparently involves reliving the most dreadful of one’s memories. The poem does not say that explicitly but repeats the relatively innocuous experiences listed in the first stanza: “Facing the wide glare of the children’s day/ Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drum.”...

(The entire section is 525 words.)