There's a cool web of language winds us in, Retreat from too much joy or too much fear: We grow sea-green at last and coldly die In brininess and volubility.
By this point, Graves seems to be making a case for how language and talking is able to help adults deal with painful experiences. But why then does he talk about children not having this same ability in stanza 1? Does he feel bad for them? Is he saying that childhood is just one unending trauma until you learn to speak? (Man, is this guy fun at parties or what?) In fact, he's sort of saying that, but not really…
In stanza 3, Robert Graves mentions the title of this poem by saying that "There's a cool web of language [that] winds us in." So in other words, he's comparing language to a spider's web that we're all caught up in. The fact that this web is cool seems to refer to Graves' earlier claim that language makes experience more bearable (i.e., it metaphorically cools the hot day).
But this idea of being trapped in language might also add a little bit of doubt to the idea that language is such a great thing. After all, wouldn't it be better to talk about language as a medicine that makes us feel better, instead of a gross spider web that we can't escape from? And come to think of it: how exactly are we trapped in it?
According to Graves, there might actually be a downside to language's effects. Even while it makes tough experiences more bearable, it might also make all of our awesome, super-terrific-happy-fun-time experiences less awesome. In other words, its effects work both ways. It dulls the bad stuff, but it does the same thing to the good stuff, and we need to think about what we might be losing out on because of it.
In line 10, Graves mentions that adults with language tend to "Retreat from too much joy or too much fear." In this sense, he's suggesting that the older we get, the more we try to make our experience moderate and orderly. Most adults, he suggests, are willing to make amazing experiences less amazing, as long as they can also make bad experiences less bad.
But what happens if we take this logic even farther? If we totally stop feeling highs and lows, how are we any different, say, from a rock? Or a Spock? Are we even alive?
Well, according to Graves, the answer might be no. (We're telling you, this guy is bringing us down.) With language to level out all our highs and lows, we apparently "grow sea-green at last and coldly die."
But why would we turn sea-green? Likely it's because green skin is usually associated with illness, and the connection to the sea or ocean might mean that, without highs and lows, we might just "coldly die" and dissolve back into the ocean, which is where all life originally came from. Good times.
The final line of stanza 12 mentions the words "brininess" and "volubility," and seems to draw a direct connection between them. The word "brininess" refers to the saltiness of the ocean. And what is salty brine mostly used for? Any pickle fans out there? You got it: brine is used to preserve things over time and protect them from rotting. But as you might remember, pickling something in brine also makes it shrivel up (which is why most pickles are smaller than most cucumbers—think about it, gang).
The same might go for the way language affects experience. It might protect and preserve us from the horrors of the world, but there's also a trade-off. Some part of us might also shrivel up because we can't experience beauty or great experiences in a pure form.
The word "volubility," on the other hand, is an adjective that refers to a person who's a master at using words. So here, Graves seems to be saying that the more we master our language, the more we tend to control our experience. To some extent, this is a good thing; but to another extent, it makes us trapped in a web of language that makes all special experiences slightly less special. Yay-boo.
Form note: is our rhyme scheme holding up? Not if you go by our modern pronunciation, which would mean that "volubility" would have a long E sound and clash with "die," rather than chime with it. However, Graves was not writing for our modern ears, and the rules of older, British poetry would give him a rhyme pass here, allowing "volubility" a long I sound at the end.
(This is similar to the way older poets rhyme "again" with words like "brain" or "pain" or "insane in the membrane"—it doesn't fly with our modern ears, but it did back then.) Check out "Form and Meter" for more.