Study Guide

The Naked and the Nude Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Read the first stanza of the poem aloud. Go on. We'll still be here when you get back.

    Did it feel like you were riding a horse or singing a marching song? That's the super-duper-ultra-regular iambic tetrameter at work. (Want to know more about that rhythm? Check out our "Form and Meter" section.) It makes the poem feel light and bouncy, which is strange considering that Graves is discussing something that poets usually take pretty darn seriously: art. It makes us like him just a little more. Who doesn't like someone who knows how to take themselves less seriously?

    There are only a few big or foreign words in this poem, and it's actually pretty cool how Graves sets them up to sound clunky. We're meant to trip a little bit over the word "lexicographers" and probably try to sound French (and, well, stumbling) as we pronounce "dishabille." The words sound as stuffy as they're meant to, which means that even as they roll over our tongues, we're inclined not to like them. And that suits Graves' speaker just fine. He wants us to think that people who speak with fancy words are the sorts who tend to appreciate the nude and disdain nakedness. So fancy words that are hard to pronounce become implicit ways to discredit people who use other high-falutin' words like, say, nude.

    Other than those few words, the poem works pretty smoothly on the tongue. It sounds a little like a Jon Stewart take on words—if Jon Stewart discussed words at length and lived at the beginning of the twentieth century. Part of that smoothness, then, comes from Graves' use of assonance to make this picture even more gripping. Check out, for example, lines 7-8, when "gaze," "naked," and "ablaze" all share the same long A vowel sound. It's like perceiving nakedness is actually something that the "gaze" does naturally…because they share the same sound.

    Finally, there is one big example of alliteration in this poem: it starts with the title and doesn't let up until the very last line. We're talking, of course, about "naked" and "nude," the two words which are the subject of the poem itself. The repetition of an initial N sound hammers home the point that these two words are, strictly speaking, pretty similar—with the same general meaning and even the same first consonant (that's where the alliteration comes from). So what's Graves making such a fuss about? Actually, the alliteration does something pretty cool: it highlights the similarity between the words, which makes the differences that Graves points out all the more striking.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We're not sure exactly where Graves got his title for certain, but we're willing to bet that it's got something to do with an article that a painter named Walter Sickert wrote in 1910 called…you guessed it: "The Naked and the Nude." In it, Sickert got up in arms about the fact that nudes were being portrayed pretty unrealistically. In fact, they were so fancified that they started to look like non-human deities. They weren't bodies.

    Sickert's complaint is actually one that seemed pretty common in Impressionism, an artistic movement from the 1860s to the early 1900s that was much more interested in how things looked for reals (that is, how a body looks in motion, or in different lights, or from different angles), than in depicting a Perfect Form.

    (Want to see what this more realistic approach looks like? Check out these images that Sickert painted. There's even a murder involved. It's all very exciting, we promise. We've included them in our "Best of the Web: Images" section, too.)

    It sure seems to us like Graves is picking up the fight where Sickert left off. If Sickert cared about the way bodies were depicted in painting, Graves is worried about the sorts of associations that get attached to words. "Naked" seems bad and dirty, like a lewd picture. "Nude" came to connote art, culture, and acceptable nudity. And that, for Graves, is a problem. The title lays out his terms is exactly the same straightforward way that the poem will proceed. It also joins the two seemingly different terms together with that "and" in the middle – accomplishing nicely what the poem goes on to point out in the lines that follow. Neat, huh?

  • Setting

    This poem is set…in the mind. Oh, and in the world, too.

    Wait, that's a lot of territory to cover, isn't it? Well, yes, but stick with us: see, the speaker of "The Naked and the Nude" is clearly working some problems out in his own head. He's puzzling through an issue that has really been getting his goat (sort of like how we might wonder for a really long time why Daylight Saving Time exists or why people say "dead as a doornail").

    But then again, the things he's thinking about are smack in the center of the world. In fact, the human body is pretty much as corporeal and earthly as you can get. So, you could say that this poem has a strong mind/body balance—which would make every yoga instructor proud.

    And then, of course, the real tension in this poem comes from the way that the body moves in the world. Is it okay to be naked? Or can we only be naked when we're naked in an artistic way? Is being "in the nude" somehow more respectable than being naked? Is being naked somehow crude or debased? All these questions revolve around the ways that the world perceives nudity and nakedness. So this poem takes place in the mind, which can sometimes seem like the furthest thing away from the world. And yet, it's specifically the role of art in the world that drives this poem's central question.

  • Speaker

    Any poem that starts with "For me" is just begging for us to think about its speaker. After all he announces himself (and we assume that it's a he) with the second word! Our speaker doesn't disappoint. He's witty and pretty funny—after all, he takes on a pretty risqué topic and then reminds us, over and over (and over), that he's willing to face issues that might cause most people to avert their eyes. In fact, as we've said in our detailed summary, he devotes an entire paragraph to nakedness, an uncomfortable enough topic. But that's not enough. Nope. He follows that up with another paragraph on the nude. Squirming yet? Like our speaker cares. In fact, that seems to be his goal. He's got a point to make and he's going to make it no matter what.

    Of course, even though our speaker never identifies himself, we can gather a few clues about what he's like. For one thing: like Graves, he's pretty up on his Greek mythology. And he's pretty confident of his own opinions. His argument about art is well-organized (by stanza) and all of the allusions to mythology provide sophisticated examples to support his point. It makes him sound learned and maybe, just maybe, make us more inclined to follow him as he makes his pronouncements.

    We're fairly convinced anyway, especially when he wraps up his opinions with a little joke. Everyone loves a dude with a good sense of humor. We've got a feeling that our speaker knows this, so maybe that's why he manages to draw the poem to a close with a quip. After repeating the terms "naked" and "nude" over and over and over, he draws them together in one phrase and manages to invert an old artistic hierarchy (nude > naked) by declaring that the nude are actually (gasp!) naked. All in all, we think the speaker would take home a trophy in debate for his argument in this poem.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Once you get past the fact that Graves is sorting through some pretty intricate distinctions between the naked and the nude in art, the poem is pretty easy to take in…that is, until you have to start searching the interweb to figure out just who a Gorgon might be.

  • Calling Card

    History and Humor

    You might have read Robert Graves as a war poet, but that's probably because every high school English class has some section on bravery and valor, and, well, the WWI poets are pretty good candidates on both counts. But Graves' interest in history extended beyond the wars that he fought in. He reached back—way back—to write about the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and the lives of the ancient Romans. Some people are only interested in their own history. But Graves was into History with a capital H.

    He wrote about and imagined the lives and times of soldiers in his lifetime and soldiers long ago. Check out "Cry Faugh!" here, which works through his relationship to love, history, and myth. For Graves' war poems, "Queer Time" is a good starting point. You can find it here. You've got to admire the man's imaginative reach.

    But here's why we're really excited about Graves' poetry: he makes history interesting. Instead of giving us dates and names and places, he writes about the passions that move people through a specific set of events. And he does so with a certain tongue-in-cheek detachment from all his subjects. Nothing is too serious for a laugh—not even love, death, or the passage of time.

  • Form and Meter

    Iambic Tetrameter

    "The Naked and the Nude" keeps things on the straight and narrow: four stanzas, six lines each. One stanza lays out the problem: Naked vs. nude—which is better? And then one stanza is devoted to each "side" of the case. The final stanza resolves the problem (in the speaker's opinion, at least).

    Even the rhyme scheme is as simple as it can get. The stanzas each have three rhyming couplets. (For those of you Shmoopsters who like the alphabet, that scheme reads AABBCC, where each letter refers to a particular end rhyme.) Couple that with the fact that all of the lines have regular iambic meter, which means that every other syllable is accented. An iamb is a pair of syllables with the stress on the second syllable: da-DUM. (Say "allow" out loud to hear an iamb in action.) Now check out the first line:

    For me, the naked and the nude

    See? It's as regular as can be. And the meter never, ever changes. All iambic. All the time. Well…most of the time. Not every line, apparently, got the iambic tetrameter memo. Take line 7 for example:

    Lovers without reproach will gaze

    "Lovers" thwarts the iambic pattern, with its emphasis on the first syllable instead of the second. That's called a trochee. And what's it doing there in the middle of this beautifully symmetrical rhyme scheme? Well, consider the point of the poem: to knock the nude down a peg, to rescue the reality of the human form from the preciousness of art. Wouldn't it make sense to interrupt the poetic form, then, as a kind of subtle reminder that this poem's speaker isn't buying into art's detachment (with the nude) from reality (the naked).

    So, this poem, in its criticism of art, is not entirely buying into conventional artistic forms. Another example? This poem is not written in blank verse. Blank verse is iambic pentameter (which means that there are 10 syllables per line.) This only has 8 syllables. In fancy terms, that's iambic tetrameter. Why the demotion? Well, we're guessing that the slightly-less-formal feel of tetrameter is exactly what Graves is after. After all, Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. And since his verse is pretty much English with a capital E, anything less (like tetrameter) feels less formal. His tone is cheeky, off-hand, especially when he makes his pronouncement "How naked go sometimes the nude!" Even though he's taking on serious questions about art and life, he wants to have fun, and he wants his readers to have fun too. We can tell because the meter sets a rollicking pace that we, as readers, can't help but assume.

  • Greek Mythology

    Any time a poet or an artist makes reference to Greek mythology, you know that they're pulling out the big guns. See, in Western literary and cultural traditions, "Greek" is sort of the same thing as Culture, with a capital C. From esteemed career paths to snake-faced hellions, this poem has it all.

    We could chalk all the greekiness (sorry) up to Graves' own interest in mythology, but we're betting that there's also something about the pagan nature of the Greek gods that is important here. The gods and goddesses aren't thought of as religious figures anymore (Graves, after all, is writing in a pretty Christian society). But they're still important. After all, lots of classical literature is still swirling in the minds of British public schoolgirls and boys. So why does Graves turn to Gorgon instead of Jesus? Well, we're guessing that it's a big, blaring clue that this poem is going to be teasing out some knots in social issues, but not necessarily religious ones.

    • Line 11: The goddess on a lion is likely an allusion to Athena. She's sort of a favorite of people who fancy themselves smart, since she's the goddess of wisdom—oh, and war (hence the lion). And if the goddess of wisdom goes naked, well, then, that's probably a good sign.
    • Line 23: The Gorgon is a female creature who is, all things considered, pretty hideous. You might know that most famous of Gorgons: Medusa. Why does she show up at the end of the poem? Is Graves imagining both the naked and the nude getting punished for being naked? Or is it just the case that all bodies get pretty beaten up once they're no longer living? You might even think of Medusa's whips as just the natural destruction of time. Ouch.
  • The Sun

    Okay, so the poem doesn't actually mention the sun by name, but its imagery radiates in the stanzas on the naked. There are lots of reasons why Graves might turn on the sunlight in his descriptive language: for one thing, the sun helps us to see. Also, it's a life force of a sort—plants wouldn't grow without it. And you might be a whole lot more sickly-looking if the sun never came out to play.

    It's so important that, for centuries, people believed that it was at the center of the universe. Sure, science came along and changed all that, but it hasn't changed our sense that the sun is absolutely central to life as we know it. By extension, anything with sun-like qualities is probably going to be pretty high on our "like" list.

    • Line 8: When lovers' bodies are described as "ablaze," we're guessing that Graves doesn't mean that they've been set on fire. That is the opposite of delightful (and really pretty gross). Luckily, we're guessing that "ablaze," in this context, means shining. Hollywood's got this sunlit-lover thing down, by the way—like when James Bond rises out of the ocean and looks oh-so-fine. Or when music plays, the film starts moving in slo-mo, and the camera zooms in on a heroine with the sun behind her, so that it seems to shine straight out of her skin.
    • Line 11: More shining here, and we're guessing that—since "the Goddess" is naked—the speaker is really talking about (sun)light on her naked body. Once again, the sun is drawing positive attention to the human form.
    • Steaminess Rating


      Hold up. How can a poem about not having clothes on be just PG? Sorry, folks, this poem is just about as clean as they come. Graves is interested in how people misuse the naked human body, making it into a thing that's dirty or not respectable. So his descriptions of the naked and the nude are, well, pretty tame. We've tossed in a PG rating because naked people get whipped at the very end, which is a little saucy (and painful), we'll admit.

    • Allusions

      Mythical References

      • Athena (5)
      • Gorgon (23)

      Historical References

      • Hippocrates (9)