Study Guide

The Cool Web The Sea

By Robert Graves

The Sea

Whenever he mentions the sea or water in general, Graves tends to be talking about how language is a fluid thing that's able to "cool" everything it touches. For Graves, heat symbolizes human passion and intense emotions, while coolness represents moderation or even dullness. In this sense, language is like the sea, totally infinite in its ability to cool down our experience. On the other hand, though, the saltiness of sea water has a way of protecting us and destroying us at the same time.

Just think about it for a second, salt water can be used to preserve something like a cucumber by turning it into a pickle (mmm, pickles…). But it can only doing this by making the cucumber shrivel up. The same thing goes for the human mind. Language is able to preserve us against the intense things in the world that might overwhelm us. But it can only do this by making our minds a little less active and by making all of our experience a little duller.

The Sea's Timeline

  • Lines 11-12: Up to this point in the poem, Graves has talked about how the "cool web" of language tends to make our bad experiences a little less bad. But in line 10, he suggests that there might be a downside to this. Language might lead us away from "too much fear," but it also leads us away from "too much joy." In this situation, we tend to "grow sea-green at last and coldly die / In brininess and volubility" (11-12). When he says that we grow sea-green, Graves is suggesting that the web of language tends to turn us "sea-green." This color is usually associated with sickness, but Graves even connects it to coldly dying. So here, he seems to be saying that language might cool down our hot experiences to the extent that we lose all heat together and we "die." Now he's probably not talking about death in a literal way. Rather, he suggests that our experiences might become so dull that we might end up "dead inside," just living total zombie lives where we don't really experience any emotions at all. 
  • Lines 13-14: In the poem's final stanza, Graves starts to wonder about how life would look life if we were able to "thro[w] off language and its watery clasp" (14). The fact that language has a watery clasp suggests that language is a fluid thing, able to adapt to any attempts we might make to escape. Based on what he's said about growing sea-green and dying, it sounds like life would be pretty awesome if we were able to escape language and experience life in all its variety and intensity. But we have to remember that language doesn't just make good experiences less good. It also makes bad experiences less bad. So, in this sense, we're in a total double bind. Language dulls experience and slowly kills our souls over time. But if we ever tried to escape it, we'd go mad because we'd get too much unfiltered experience all at once.

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