The Cool Web
"The Cool Web" ain't the longest poem you'll ever read, but it sure packs a wallop. Basically, the poem outlines Robert Graves's belief that language and speech are more than just ways for people to communicate with one another. They're also tools that we use to dull our experiences.
But wait a second. How and why does language make our experience duller? Well for Graves, language takes all the random things we experience with our five senses and gives them a sense of order by turning them into practical information. For example, you might suddenly find yourself surrounded by explosions of colors, smells, and feelings. But language allows you to give shape to your experience by saying: "Okay, it's a hot day and I'm surrounded by a garden of roses that I can smell." Now the experience isn't just a bunch of individual sensations. Language turns it into something that "makes sense."
When you take in what Graves is saying about language in this poem, it's important to realize that he published this poem less than 10 years after the end of World War I (in 1927), a war that Graves fought in and which left him a very sick and fragile man. In his journals, Graves remembers being terrified of unusual smells for years after the war, since smells reminded him of being attacked by German gas bombs. Bad times.
After World War I, many ex-soldiers like Graves were totally traumatized by their experiences of war. And one of the things that makes emotional trauma so hard to deal with is that people aren't able to express their experiences in words. In "The Cool Web," Graves talks about this aspect of trauma, but also mentions all of the intense emotion we might lose by putting our world into words. We lose our child-like sense of wonder, for example. But on the other hand, we're in a double bind, because according to Graves, we'd go totally nuts if we didn't have the ability to dull our senses. So when it comes to the "cool web" of language, you're darned if you do and danged if you don't.
Why Should I Care?
We're willing to bet that, at some time or another, you've had an experience so awesome or so horrible that you had a hard time explaining or describing it to others. On some level, you just didn't feel like words could do justice to the experience. Maybe trying to talk about the experience made it feel less awesome or less horrible to you, too.
In "The Cool Web," Robert Graves is talking about a very basic, yet important part of human life. Words aren't just things we use to communicate with one another. They're tools for us to organize our experiences into neat categories. Now on the one hand, organizing our experiences helps our lives make sense (kind of like the way we organize our sock drawer—alphabetically, by color if you must know—helps us get dressed every day). But on the other hand, we might end up missing out on a lot of the beauty that we were more in touch with when we were children.
How about it? Do you feel like you lost something important when you went from being a child to being an adult? That childhood innocence, the sense of wonder and joy you had at something as simple as running around in a field? Well according to Graves, one of the reasons your experiences are so intense as a child is because you haven't mastered language at that point. In other words, we use words to convert "experience" into "information." Experience is something that hits us right in the heart, while information is less emotional and more practical.
For Graves, poetry might be one of our best ways for taking the logic out of language and playing with language until we recapture our childhood sense of wonder with the world (sweet). On the other hand, Graves also knows that if we didn't translate our experience into practical information, we'd probably go crazy (not so sweet). Can you imagine what life would be like if you were still paralyzed by the fear of something hiding under your bed? To some extent, you have to grow up and enter the "cool web" of language. But on the other hand, it's also worthwhile to think about what you might lose in the process.