The Cool Web
by Robert Graves (pub 1927)
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.
When I first encountered Graves’ poetry in my early days at university, it was the short poems I loved most.
The light-hearted generosity of
Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.
Or the superb
She tells her love while half asleep,
In the dark hours,
With half-words whispered low:
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.
That was a poet joyfully being a poet, like D. H. Lawrence’s lizard..
A lizard ran out on a rock and looked up, listening
no doubt to the sounding of the spheres.
And what a dandy fellow! the right toss of a chin for you
and swirl of a tail!
If men were as much men as lizards are lizards
they’d be worth looking at.
But when I came across The Cool Web, I found a poem that didn’t just delight me, but became a constant reference point.
Words are all a poet or dramatist has to express the intensities of human emotion and experience. And yet we use words to lessen that intensity, to protect ourselves from it. Where does that leave a poet?
Shakespeare, with his forensic understanding of psychological complexity, returns to this point time and again.
Malcolm, when trying to break the news of the murder of his wife and children to Macduff, says
What, man! Ne’er pull your hat upon your brows.
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.
The Cool Web makes the same point; adults cannot face unfiltered emotion without going mad. And yet.. the web of words with which we protect ourselves shields us from the full intensity of experience but in so doing makes us colder, less passionately engaged human beings. And how can a poet be a poet if he does not passionately engage with life – and use his words to heighten emotion, not dilute it?
This poem seemed to me the perfect key to an oratorio which seeks to explore the difficulties of a poet faced with the unbearable experience of trench warfare.
It gave us our overarching theme – and much else besides.
The oratorio had to do more than express the misery of war; it also needed to illuminate a rite of passage from childhood to abrupt adulthood, and the poem gave us exactly the right images for this; the tall soldiers, the drums, the black waste of evening sky.
All of these elements became part of the fabric of the oratorio and together formed a connective narrative throughout, colouring the instrumentation of the piece.
The soldiers in this first poem, however tall and frightening they are to a child, are tin soldiers from a fairy tale marching red, gold and straight to the nursery beat of a tin drum; as the oratorio progresses to actual combat they become the real and beloved companions of the regiment and then the fiercely mourned slain; the rhythm of their marching feet carries us through to the end.
Similarly, the drums begin here as the lively military drums of romantic historical campaigns; as the oratorio develops, their tone deepens and becomes more ominous, until they become part of the thunder of bombardment.
The terror of the black wastes of evening sky grows in intensity as the war approaches and overwhelms everything. It is the sky above An English wood from which the owls swoop ominously down; the bitter sky the lovers in Counting the Beats dread as they wait for the coming storm, the sky of the Night March down to the Somme through which the banshees wail, the dark from which the terrifying head of the cat appears in A Child’s Nightmare.
The shifting significance of soldiers, drums and sky signify the transition from the clear, inarticulate images of childhood to the complex and disturbing emotions of adulthood, which, try as we might, we cannot spell away.
The images bleed from the sung line to colour the richness of the orchestral sound; the cool web of language sinks into and becomes part of the power of the music; and passionate intensity is restored.