I think this is the kind of poem that shows Robert Graves at his best as a lucid yet profound explorer of the human psyche. This one is always associated in my mind with the time my small son, then not quite two, was toddling down the garden path when he suddenly started crying inconsolably, shaking and pointing at something in the border. I hurried to him thinking he must have been stung by a bee, but then saw a small yellow frog hopping away into the undergrowth. ‘It’s just a little frog, it won’t hurt you’, I reassured him. He relaxed visibly. ‘Fwog’, he said, and I thought this is it, the cool web at work, another piece of the world’s strangeness and otherness named, tamed, pigeonholed, filed away. And paradoxically, it is part of the role of poetry to undo that naming and taming, to make us see again that disconcerting otherness and strangeness. Not that I want us to be terrified of frogs, you understand…
The Cool Web
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.
But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.
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.
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.
Just a few thoughts: “Children are dumb to say how hot the day is” – children are unable to express in words how hot the day is? He talks about “Retreat from too much joy or too much fear” but the four examples he gives in the first verse are all sources of fear (none are sources of joy). If we can throw off language – is it possible? – and (truly) face the objects, the excess of fear (or joy) will make us go mad.
‘Dumb to say how hot the day is…’ Yes, I think it is clearly true that children experience the world more directly and vividly through the senses, with less or even, when very young, no mediation at all of language. The idea that the acquisition of language is both a great gain and a great loss fascinates me: this is a poem of my own on the subject:
A summer garden, and the scent of grass.
A hot dark flower; my sister saying ‘Tulip’,
And sudden understanding: speech was gift,
Was summoning. Even today the word
Shimmers in my mind; saying it now
I taste again the day’s new heat, remember
The innocent delight that was no less
An end of innocence, a closing gate
With no way back to that forgotten first
World before the world grew separate:
To essence, and the nameless heart of things,
And light, cascading silently, forever.
Hi David, thanks for your reply. Before we learn language we have some kind of essential link with the world? Once we learn language that link is broken and can never be recovered?
That would be the idea behind my own poem: that we impose a taxonomy on the world which is useful and even necessary, but at the same time robs us of some more holistic, essential way of seeing . The Graves poem, I think, is more about the way we use language to defend ourselves. ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality”, says T.S.Eliot in ‘Four Quartets’, so interposing words between ourselves and that reality mediates and deflects it.