Some Poems Worth Your Time: The Cool Web--Robert Graves

Some Poems Worth Your Time: The Cool Web--Robert Graves

Robert Graves may be best known to contemporary readers for his "I, Claudius" novels (I, Claudius, and Claudius the God)--not because they have actually read them, but because they were made into a well-known BBC miniseries. And some may actually know him for his World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That--again, not because they have read it, but because Joan Didion appropriated the title of Graves's memoir for her seminal essay/memoir about 1960s New York from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (the title lifted from the Yeats poem. Didion only appropriated from the best!).

But Graves was also a poet, and if he had only written this one poem, his name--as well as this poem--would be worth committing to memory.

Here is a link to the poem.

Many people who read this poem try to excuse the first line "Children are dumb," likely because it seems like a cruel thing to say. They explain that Graves means "mute" not "stupid." I'm not so sure. I think we need to allow for both when we read this. The poem is shocking throughout, so why not allow that it is shocking from the first line? Besides, it's not as if Graves would have been unaware of the dual meaning. It's been part of the English language longer than there has been an English language ("dumb" meant "stupid in Old High German and the German languages that followed) and it was in common use in the "stupid" sense by the late 18th or early 19th century--a century or two before Graves's poem.

The poem is about what we gain and what we lose when we put language between us and our experience. Children learn how to do this as they grow up. When they are young, they don't have the words--are "dumb"--to describe beauty, or fear, or war. But they also don't know--are ignorant as to how--are "dumb" in the other sense.

Our language allows us to describe these things, but at a loss. Nothing is as magnificent, or as terrifying, once we put it into words. And so we lose something in gaining speech.

What I love about the poem is that it isn't nostalgic for some lost childhood. Sure, we lose the direct access to our experience once we water it down with language. But the poem suggests that it's a matter of survival. As Jack Nicholson's character says in A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!!" And so we can't. It would drive us mad to confront life without a filter, without the distance language provides us. So pick your poison: life by the drop and die young; or live a more tedious, but longer and more cultivated existence.

And there is the matter of the title. The poet says it is the "cool web of language winds us in." We are caught in its web like a spider's prey. And it is just a matter of time before language devours us. But this is a Hobson's choice (a choice without a choice): either we succumb to language or we go insane, which the poet compares to drowning--which is just another way of being swallowed up. (nb--language may water down raw experience, but Graves uses water to represent that raw experience. I don't know why.)

It's impossible for me--as it might be for you--to think of this poem's title without also thinking of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web--another memorable work about the web of language--and death. Just remember--Graves got there first!

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