Study Guide

The Cool Web The Cool Web

By Robert Graves

The Cool Web

Yeah, you can tell that this web thing is pretty important because it's, you know, in the title of the poem. The cool web isn't an easy thing to describe, though. Basically, it's a metaphor that Graves uses to explain the way the human beings get caught in language as they grow older.

Now, you're probably wondering how a person could get caught in language (we don't blame you). But, if you think about it, your thoughts and emotions are totally free and unformed when you're a kid. You experience everything as if it's brand new. But when you learn language, you learn how to group your thoughts and emotions into general categories and, as you gain more experience, things stop seeming so, well, new. So in this sense, language makes you a more efficient thinker, but it also makes your experience a little bit duller in the process. Win some, lose some.

Ultimately, Graves says that the "cool web of language" put us in a double bind. We need it in order to become rational adults. But we also lose out on a lot of the passionate emotion that we used to have when we were younger, since language makes us "Retreat from too much joy or too much fear" (10). On the other hand, Graves says we would probably "go mad no doubt and die" (18) if we didn't have language to help us make sense of new experiences, since everything we see, taste, or touch would be too overwhelming (kind of like what happens to this guy).

The Cool Web's Timeline

  • Lines 1-2: While he doesn't mention the cool web directly, Graves starts making his general points about language and its effects on human experience from the very beginning of this poem. He starts off by saying how children aren't able to say how hot the day is because they don't have language to make sense of it. All they really experience is general heat. They also don't know "how hot the scent of the summer rose" is (2). But, as Graves is already implying, adults do have the power to talk about these things. 
  • Lines 5-6: In his second quatrain, Graves leaps in to say that "we" (meaning him and his readers) "have speech, to chill the angry day, / and speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent" (5-6). Here, he's basically saying that our ability to talk and to use language has a way of making unpleasant experiences more bearable. This is probably because language allows us to think in terms of general categories like "hot" and "cold," instead of experiencing everything as it really is for the first time, like kids do. 
  • Lines 9-10: Finally, Graves gets around to actually naming the "cool web of language," and he claims that this is something that all of us (adults) are caught up in, like flies in spider's web. The web is "cool" because it makes all of our extreme "hot" experiences easier to bear, and therefore "cools" them for us. It helps us "Retreat from too much joy or too much fear" (10). So here, Graves is saying that kids experience things in really extreme emotional ways because they don't have the language to make their experience fit into neat little categories. Adults, on the other hand, use language to make all of experience "cooler."

    The problem, though, is that language not only makes our experience easier to bear; it also makes all of our experience "duller." It's kind of like when a person gives up their young dreams of being a rock star, and instead gets a nice comfy job and moves to the suburbs. Life might be a lot more straightforward and manageable, but it comes at the sacrifice of making life a little duller. For Graves, being an animal that uses language is a big trade-off. But, unfortunately, it's not really a trade-off we can refuse. Knowing language is just part of being human.

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