The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

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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 actually die, instead of when we die, then we would again face the “wide glare of the children’s day” as well as the rose, the dark sky, and the soldier’s drum. This would probably drive one mad, and one would die that way.

The poet’s cool and orderly analysis of this function of language suggests that he is demonstrating how words display this cloaking, muffling property. Immediately under the surface is a raw sensibility that finds experience almost more than he can bear. The poem provides some hints, but it conceals the actual nature of the reality that lies beneath. Real fear and joy are so muffled in metaphor and symbol that the reader cannot know what actually inspired such emotion. Yet one believes that under the well-crafted phrases and the smoothly controlled lines lies a primal scream.

Perhaps the most successful of the poet’s verbal cloaking devices is the clear implication that the undisciplined fears are characteristic only of children. This is a person remembering childish nightmares, perhaps. Knowing of Robert Graves’s actual experience of protracted war neurasthenia during and after World War I, however, one must suspect that it was not in childhood that he experienced that extraordinary terror. The dumb—that is, speechless—child that cannot say what it feels is a child within, whom the poet strives both to reveal and to conceal in language.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

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.”

By this point in the poem, some of the more suggestive words that revealed unaccountable terror behind the images have been cleared away: The rose is mentioned, but not its “hot scent”; “dark sky” is easier to take than “black wastes”; drums are mentioned but not soldiers; and the two “dreadfuls” of the first stanza are gone (“How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,/ How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by”). Not only has the poet apparently chosen language over raw emotion, he has also curbed his tendency to use loaded words.

Since the images used for painful experience are so clear in literal terms yet so veiled as to their underlying significance, one can do little more than guess from possible connotations what they mean to the poet. “Hot” has traditional associations with both anger and sexual passions. The rose is certainly traditionally paired with love. If attributing this dread to children is to deflect attention from the grown man, then uneasiness about sexual passions makes sense. In fact, Graves wrote other poems devoted to this attitude. Moreover, though little boys are hardly ever worried about drums and toy soldiers, big boys such as Graves, who was nineteen when he knew the hell of trench warfare in World War I, suffered both physical and psychological wounds. Many of his generation shared what was then popularly called shell shock. There can be little doubt that the soldiers mentioned in the poem are known from a brutally realistic, adult perspective, not from a child’s view. Graves was so badly wounded at one time that he was listed as dead. Moreover, the war neurasthenia lingered for many years after the war ended.