Why is the title of the poem “The cool web”? Give a reason for your answer.
The poem discusses an adult’s predisposition to use linguistic dexterity to avoid the consequences of extreme emotion.
The title combines two words, “cool” and “web”, each of which evokes a strong impression, to create a third even more evocative image.
There are many English expressions which use the word “cool” to convey repressing emotion. This usage is similar to using “calm”: “cool down”, “don’t lose your cool”, “go and cool off”, “cool it!” and so on. Even the slang interpretation of “cool” in the sense of fashionable or sophisticated conjures up the idea of a relaxed and casual attitude. In the context of the poem, “cool” can be seen as synonymous with a lack of passion and an increase of self-control.
“Web” is used to convey the sense of being enveloped by a layer which inhibits freedom. Graves could have used “net” or “mesh”, however those words lack the sinister connotation of the most common use of “web”: that of a “spider’s web”. In this sense, there is an air of vulnerability and menace; the spider’s prey has not chosen to be caught in the web, but is ensnared nevertheless.
The combination of “cool” and “web” creates an image of forced composure. The “cool web” is a linguistic lobotomy which life imposes on humankind.
What is the effect of the repetition of ‘hot’ and ‘dreadful’ in the first stanza?
The first stanza creates a threatening atmosphere. The adjectives used are intense: the day is not warm, it is hot; the evening is not dark, but black; the soldiers are full of dread, not just alarming. (Although now used in the same way as frightening, “dreadful” really describes a greater level of terror.) This development of menace is further emphasised by the repetition of the “hot” and “dreadful”. The point is driven home to the reader.
If Graves had used synonyms – blistering for “hot” and frightening for “dreadful” – in the second instances of each, the meaning would be essentially unchanged. However, the sound and rhythm of the stanza would be significantly affected. The effect is also assisted by repeating not only “hot”, but the assonance and alliteration of the phrase “how hot”.
The repetition and emphasis of “hot” in lines 1 and 2 also provides contrast between the word “cool” in the title and “chill” in line 5. “Cool” and “coldly” are also used in the body of the poem in contrast to “hot”.
(This emphasis through repetition is used a number of times: in the second stanza with “spell”; in line 10 with “too much” and in the last stanza with “facing”.)
Who are ‘we’ in the second stanza (line 5)?
The use of “but” at the beginning of line 5 contrasts “we” from the children of the first stanza and presumably Graves therefore means adults. Adults have a more sophisticated command of language with which to interpret events. Children are direct in their approach to the world and do not attempt to obscure reality for any reason. On meeting an overweight person, a young child will cheerfully ask them why they are so fat. An adult would be unlikely to broach the subject at all. Children simply state what they think; adults use euphemisms and oblique vocabulary to ward off unwelcome emotions.
Comment on the use of:
The adjectives ‘cruel’ to describe the rose’s scent and ‘overhanging’ to describe the night (lines 6 and 7).
The reader is jolted as these adjectives are associated with unfamiliar subjects. This is a form of foregrounding to draw attention to the language of the poem. The use of “cruel” to describe the scent of a rose is especially jarring. Almost without exception the rose is a symbol of romance and love, not one of cruelty. Graves seems to be implying that anything that intrudes – even something pleasant – is objectionable and to be “dulled”. By describing the night as “overhanging” Graves refers to the sense of intimidation, of something unexpected looming over us. The poet then tells us that this should – and can be – be spelled away as undesirable.
The verb ‘spell’ in the phrase ‘we spell away’ (lines 7 and 8)
Graves exploits a double meaning of “spell” to intertwine the ideas of language and trickery. In the linguistic context “spell” means to form a word by arranging its constituent letters in the correct order. ‘Spell” also means to influence someone or something by means of magical powers. In this way, the poet concentrates a number of images into a single word. An adult’s desire to misrepresent reality is a form of magical spell, but it requires the ability to spell words.
(Graves also uses this technique in line 1 by describing children as “dumb”. This could mean that they are stupid and therefore unable to manipulate and distort the world. It could also mean that children have no linguistic faculty as in “deaf and dumb.” Of course, he means both.)
Explain how, in your opinion, ‘the cool web’ may protect one against ‘too much joy or too much fear’ (lines 5 to 11).
“The cool web” of language is used to rationalise extreme emotions. Instead of reacting instinctively to a situation, we can drown it in verbose explanations. From pulpit to parliament, and from lawyer to liar, we use language to distort reality to suit ourselves. It is through language that we can persuade ourselves that the noise we hear in the night is just the cat and not a violent burglar. This is the basis for Graves’s reference to retreating from “too much fear.”
Less obvious is the desire to protect ourselves from “too much joy”, a condition that would appear to be desirable. Perhaps the poet believes that we are unable to cope adequately with either extreme of fortune. There are a number of superstitions in this regard such as labelling something as being “too good to be true”. It may be that Graves is suggesting that we subconsciously know that we can’t sustain a state of delight for long and that the pain of the ensuing disappointment is not worth the moment of joy. It reflects a low-risk paradigm where we would forego the highs to avoid the subsequent inevitable lows.
What indications are there in stanza 4 to show us what the speaker’s attitude is towards such protection?
The phrases “self-possession” and “throwing off” show us that the speaker believes that the protection which language offers is an imposition and not a natural state of affairs. He notes that this enforced situation controls us for our whole life until we die. While implying that this protection is a burden, Graves also tells us that without it we would go mad. In other words, this protection is a necessary evil.
Why do references to the day, the rose, the night and the soldiers recur throughout the poem?
These words occur in the first, second and fourth (last) stanzas. The repetition in the second stanza and the fourth stanza fulfil different purposes. The reference in the second stanza forms the basis for a contrast with the initial reference in the first stanza. In the first stanza these objects are described via a child’s simple outlook: hot and dreadful. In the second stanza the same words are described via an adult’s more complex, language-distorted view.
The last stanza has a different form than the first three; it breaks a pattern of 4-line stanzas and, by doing so, demands extra attention from the reader. In this last stanza the words “day”, “rose”, “night” and “drums” are listed simply without adjectives. This neatly reminds the reader of the beginning of the poem and completes the comparison between children and adults, and their differing use of language.
Briefly state the speaker’s conclusion about the role of language in our lives (lines 13 to 18).
The speaker concludes that we need language to protect ourselves from the reality of life. Graves states that without the capacity for persuading ourselves that situations are not what they appear, we would find it impossible to cope and would go mad.
The diction (choice of words), structure, rhythm and tone of the first and last stanzas are markedly different. What do you think the purpose of these differences is?
The first three stanzas have a relatively simple rhyme scheme of A B C C. The effect of lines 3 and 4 of each of these stanzas rhyming is that each stanza is concluded firmly. Three stanzas with the same structure creates a pattern and an expectation that the next stanza will be the same. The fact that it is not is a surprise and a type of foregrounding. The last stanza has a rhyme of A B C D C D and this difference in structure alerts the reader and demands additional attention.
This warning is welcome as the message in the last stanza is far more direct than previously where metaphor and allusion are used. The last line states unequivocally “we shall go mad no doubt.” It is in this last stanza that Graves delivers his judgement on our use of language.