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Intro

In A Nutshell

If you've ever read any of the poems from the First World War (think gas and mud and death and pain), then chances are you've already hung out a bit with Robert Graves. At the beginning of the twentieth century, if you were a young man and you happened to live in Britain, chances were that you spent a decent amount of time at war. Graves was no exception. His first claim to fame was as a war poet—and in the war, he made pals with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two other famous war poets. They wrote together, edited together, and even hung out in the trenches together.

Once the war was over, though, Graves' interest expanded to, well, just about everything. You could think of him as a typical renaissance man: if there was a classical translation to be done, Graves was there to do it. A history to write? He's already got chapters in the bank. From Shakespeare to the Roman Empire to Greek mythology, Graves had a finger in pretty much every literary pie.

And did we mention his interest in art? Well, that's precisely where this poem comes in. Graves' "The Naked and the Nude" is a spinoff off an article, also called "The Naked and the Nude," written by Walter Sickert in 1910. (Want to check out the original? Take a look at our link over in "Best of the Web.") Sure, the Sickert article was at least 40 years before Graves' poem, but his concerns were pretty much the same: why is it that art only takes up one type of human body—a prettified, shiny, oh-so-perfect body—like what artists call the "nude"? Why aren't we interested in regular, not-quite-perfect humans? Just plain old naked people? Today, we might ask the same question: why are magazine covers filled with airbrushed people? Are they even actual figures? When do they stop being people and start being, well, fake?

If it bugs us now, it bugged Graves then. Big time. That's why he wrote a response (or even a regeneration) of the Sickert piece. After 47 years, nothing had changed. Enter Graves, bound and determined to make a statement. Did it work? Well, that's up to you to judge.

 

Why Should I Care?

Let's face it: when the clothes come off, things get complicated. Then again, they also get a whole lot more interesting. But why is it that certain types of nakedness are acceptable (like, say, the art that you see in museums or the statues that are front and center in public places) and some kinds are not (like that guy who got in trouble for stripping down at an airport)? Why can't we all be naked all the time? It'd sure a lot easier. No more picking out clothes that look good or digging around in the back of the closet for socks that match.

If you do an interwebs search for "nude," however, you probably know what you'd find—lots of images of the female body, and none of them "artistic," as such. Our culture's gone a really long way from the Venus de Milo and even from the times in which Graves was writing. Today, it might seem like Graves is making a big deal out of something that doesn't seem to matter that much (after all, isn't one word just as good as another?). Geez, even Shakespeare weighed in on the subject when he came up with the idea that "a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet." And that was waaay back in the sixteenth century.

The real question, then, seems to be why art seems to make the human body into something other, something different from the body itself. Remember how JLo insured her rear end for like a million bucks? That's the sort of different we're talking about. Why does our culture treat some representations of the body as super-special and the others as, well, just another person looking at themselves in the mirror? Reading this poem will give you the sense that, maybe if we got to the bottom of this whole cultural tangle, it might be easier to live with our bodies, just the way they are.

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