There’s one way in which Robert Graves is important to me that has nothing to do with Goodbye to All That or any of the other significant contributions he made to literary history, and that’s his role in turning me from a history major into an English major–and thus steering me down the whole professional road I have since followed. I told most of this story once before, in a post I wrote appreciating the important teachers in my life. I had always been a passionate reader but a skeptic about the idea of literary criticism (anyone can read, right? so what is there to study?). History, on the other hand, was about something measurable. But things changed, ultimately in my view of history and the degree to which it too is literary, but first in my attitude towards literary criticism:
one day we had read a poem I really liked (it was Robert Graves’s “The Cool Web“) and I finally put my hand up and ventured some replies to his questions about Graves’s language and how particular words fit the central ideas of the poem. He seemed pleased! My answers were good! I knew what he was talking about! Things started to fall into place. He wasn’t making things up, because I could see them there too, in the poem, and thinking about how the details of form and language built up the whole piece made the poem better, more pleasurable, more exciting to read. It was like something coming into focus, something I (as someone who had always loved to read both fiction and poetry) had always seen, but had never really looked at.
I began contributing more often to class discussion (though I never became particularly voluble as a student–despite being, um, chatty in real life, I always felt both shy and nervous about speaking up), and more significantly I became absorbed by the process of literary analysis and interpretation. My first-year experience motivated me to enter the 2nd-year English pre-Honours program U.B.C. then offered, and in a little twist of fate, the sight poem I was given for my oral exam in it was “The Cool Web.” I felt almost like I was cheating because I knew the poem so well! The exam went well (don’t worry, there was more on it that “The Cool Web,” so it’s not like I coasted completely!) and the next year I started my combined Honours program in English and History, a combination of interests that sustained me through an Honours thesis on Carlyle’s The French Revolution and Middlemarch as ‘novels’ and ‘histories,’ then a Ph.D. thesis on gender and genre in Victorian historical writing…and on to the emphasis I still put on historical contexts and historiographical interests in the texts I teach. (From my fall course evaluations: “Too much history for an English class.” Huh.) I didn’t much like the Graves I met in his autobiography, and I don’t know much about the man himself beyond that, but I will always be glad I happened upon him in that form at that moment. “Who can tell what may be the effects of writing?” George Eliot asks in Middlemarch–and it is amazing, really, to reflect on the difference one poem made in my life.
“The Cool Web” was the poem I chose for today’s Close Reading tutorials, where we are preparing for an annotation assignment due next week. I still find it a wonderfully stimulating (and teachable) poem: complex and artful enough to be interesting, direct enough to be accessible, and surprisingly moving.
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.