by Mary Fairchild
Robert Graves (1895–1985) is perhaps best known for his historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Some of us of a certain age will remember the wonderful treatment those two got on PBS in the 1970s, with Derek Jacobi in the title role.*
Graves was a classicist educated to within an inch of his life and a distinguished translator of ancient Greek and Roman texts. At the start of the First World War, he enlisted in the Royal Welch Fusiliers; he wrote a memoir, published in 1929, of his experiences at the front, Good-Bye To All That. His later works include a book-length treatise on the links between myth and poetry, The White Goddess.
I confess to being no scholar, only a slightly-more-than-casual reader of poetry, but much of what I’ve read over the years has had the power to stay in my spirit. “The Cool Web” is a very serious favorite of mine by Robert Graves, a rumination on the power of language. The opening words — “Children are dumb…” — are not meant to say that children are stupid, but that they don’t yet have the language to define for themselves either the beautiful or the frightening. “Say it in words!” we tell our littluns. (It helps to remember that Graves fathered eight children.)
In the second stanza, the secret handshake is revealed; we adults are gifted with words, the spelling of which, the mere letters of which give us power over our inborn terrors. Graves has gone to a great deal of trouble to make this clear, in strong and subtle sentences; he explains this to us in the third stanza. We have reason then to relax, to pat ourselves on our metaphorical backs, to think we’ve got this all figured out, thanks-very-much. But Graves then spins off into an unruly meditation that lets the poem begin to unravel, like a poorly knit sweater, and our hearts to take possession of the world in a way that our language never could. An odd thing for a poet, a master of words, short-listed for a Nobel Prize, an odd thing for Graves to think commendable.
The Cool Web
Children are dumb to say how hot the sun 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.
My favorite poem by Graves is titled “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” It is wild and mysterious, and it enjoins us to reach back beyond our souls’ embrace, to pull apart the dense strands of the “cool web” and see what has been given purchase in our world.
Oh, my dear contemporaries, we are the elders of our time. There are those among us, these latter days, who through sad experience understand some things: that we can’t possibly know it all, that our reach has without a doubt exceeded our grasp, and that there are truckloads more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, if we’re even encumbered or blessed with such a thing as a philosophy.
But elders we surely are and, having assumed that complacent mantle, it’s mildly shocking to be told that “There is one story, and one story only.” Wait. What?
It is a mysterious exhortation. Not all of us respond well to exhortation, of course. “Oh, please,” we sigh. “Leave me be! I’m a grown-up, I know what’s what.” But as adults, we also have another option: that of “throwing off language and its watery clasp,” of digging back in our history, back before the fall, back in our souls, back in our genetic memories. Robert Graves has given us the words, and the images, to go as far back as back goes, to paraphrase George R.R. Martin. Back to the White Goddess, the triple goddess, the goddess of the moon, the earth, and childbirth: the maiden, the mother, and the crone.
This isn’t a work of feminism, but it is a work of female power and the gift of remembering. The wild story we encounter is worth the telling, and the listening. All the other stories that have been told since then are offshoots that take root and flourish in what soil has been prepared for them.
To Juan, at the Winter Solstice
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.
Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison of all true kings that ever reigned?
Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never-altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.
Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right she crooks a finger smiling,
How may the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.
Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?
Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses
There is one story and one story only.
Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild,
But nothing promised that is not performed.
A lot of serious music requires imagination from the listener as much as it does from the performer. We open our hearts to communications that might be hundreds of years in the making. But this is poetry, and the art requires a similar openness. If it doesn’t make sense in my mind, I read it aloud. If it still doesn’t make sense, I take it and walk around the house. Or out to the mailbox. (One good reason to have a Kindle.) The sense that the poetry makes may lie in the rhythm, or the sound of the vowels, or the frequency or harshness of the consonants.
I leave you with two small takeaways, First, it’s not known definitively to whom the title of this poem refers, although Graves, who lived on the Spanish-speaking island of Majorca for the second half of his long life, did name one of his children Juan; and second, I’ve been reading this poem probably several times a year for more than forty years, and I still don’t get all the references. But I love it just the same.
Be of good cheer, my friends. Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling!
*This is available to stream on Amazon, where they call it an “epic tale of ambition, debauchery, and intrigue.”