Study Guide

The Naked and the Nude

The Naked and the Nude Summary

You could think of this poem as a sort of argument about being naked. Who would argue with nakedness? We know; it's a fair question. But Robert Graves is thinking through how to distinguish between different ways that the body gets described in our world. Believe us—that's a lot to pack into four little stanzas.

Here's the problem, as our speaker sees it: there are good kinds of nudity and "bad" kinds. The "good" kinds get depicted in paintings and talked about in terms of form, aesthetic value, or beauty. The "bad" kinds get judged as disgusting or tawdry or just slutty. What's the difference between the two? Well, as Graves reminds us, beauty—or nudity—is all in the eye of the beholder.

In fact, to prove his point, he trots out a whole cast of characters who all have a relationship to the naked body: a lover, a doctor, and even a goddess. And then, to counter these pretty awesome folks, he introduces the tantalizing (and oh-so-seductive) nude form—the kind that gets discussed in the art world. You never hear of a "naked," do you? No. You hear about a nude. And that's why there are so many cultural trappings added on the nude that make it desirable and, well, just better than being naked.

Or is it? Is nudity really all that different? Well, lexicographers (the folks who write dictionaries) don't think so. And by the end of the poem, Graves doesn't think so either. But it's not that the words mean the same thing. "Nude" still seems more cultured, more artistic a term than "naked." It's not just a different word. It's a different set of associations about the body. But whether you're nude or you're naked, you're going to die someday. And even nudes might get what's coming to them in the afterlife.

Sound like a harsh pronouncement? Well, it kinda is. But it's disguised in so much witty banter that it almost sounds like a joke. And we're betting that Graves intended it that way.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-6

    For me, the naked and the nude
    (By lexicographers construed
    As synonyms that should express
    The same deficiency of dress
    Or shelter) stand as wide apart
    As love from lies, or truth from art.

    • In case you missed the title of this poem, Graves' speaker doesn't beat around the bush: his subject (we assume that it's a "he") is the difference between the naked and the nude. In fact, he announces as much in the first sentence (which, coincidentally, is also the first stanza). 
    • And did you notice the first two words? "For me." That's right. We're not getting a dictionary definition or a professor's opinion. We're hearing the voice of the lyric speaker in its full glory. 
    • But six lines at once? We know, we know—that's a pretty huge mouthful to chew. But hear us out: this stanza actually sneaks four extra lines into a pretty simple sentence by inserting a huge parenthetical statement. 
    • Check it out: there are actually four lines within parenthesis and just two and change outside of it. But notice how the phrases outside the parenthesis tend to cluster into potentially contradictory relationships? Graves sets us up with three big oppositions: love versus lies, truth versus art, and (you guessed it) naked versus nude. 
    • So what if "lexicographers" say that the words mean the same thing? By offering up an extended simile, which compares the relationship between the naked and the nude to other pretty hostile relationships, Graves is suggesting that he's going to be throwing some kinks into the lexicographers' definitions. 
    • What he says is basically this: we could think of the body without clothes as naked. Or nude. But really, those two words mean very different things. 
    • So who really loves lexicographers, anyway? (That seems to be Graves' suggestion, as well—after all, he puts their learned definitions in parenthesis.)
    • We don't have any solid definitions any longer. Great. But just wait. The waters get even murkier pretty quickly. Notice anything about the other terms that Graves gives us? Sure, love doesn't tend to survive when people are lying all the time. But truth and art? Are they hostile to each other, as well? 
    • Graves isn't giving us any clues…not yet, anyway.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 7-8

    Lovers without reproach will gaze
    On bodies naked and ablaze;

    • Having thrown down a pretty serious challenge to lexicographers, Graves better deliver. And fast. Luckily, he does. The second stanza is all about definitions of the naked—that is, his definitions. It's almost as if Graves is holding a trial to judge which word is best. And his first witness? The lovers. 
    • According to the speaker, lovers are just fine with nakedness. They're not all reproachful like little old ladies who judge when folks try to skinny-dip in ponds. 
    • Notice how Graves is immediately putting the naked body into perspective by, well, adding perspective. We're not just talking about nakedness. We're talking about the people who are observing nakedness. 
    • The rhyme scheme helps make this stanza seem incredibly tight, as well: it's AABBCC, in rhyming couplets. When offered as "evidence" in the case for the naked, each two-line pair seems like its own self-sufficient whole, as the first line rhymes with the second. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more good stuff on this technique.)

    Lines 9-10

    The Hippocratic eye will see
    In nakedness, anatomy;

    • Okay, so our speaker's next witness? "The Hippocratic eye"—which is a fancy metonym for a doctor. (Hippocrates was an ancient and influential Greek doctor.) If you've ever watched Grey's Anatomy, you know that all doctors swear a Hippocratic oath when they become doctors. (And breaking it causes problems and drama.)
    • For this poem, it's just important to note that Graves is introducing another spectator who often observes the human body when it's naked. 
    • What do doctors see? Well, just another body. A doctor sees nakedness as form: head, shoulders, knees, and so on. You probably know the song. 
    • So far, our speaker's using really straightforward language (other than that allusion to Hippocrates, that is). No long-winded phrases with lots of flowery language here. Nope—just short, to-the-point examples.

    Lines 11-12

    And naked shines the Goddess when
    She mounts her lion among men.

    • And the witnesses don't stop coming. Notice how Graves' examples are getting grander and grander? Anyone could be a lover. 
    • Only the smart and fairly well-educated are doctors. And goddesses? Well, that's a tricky job to pull off. 
    • Why the Goddess and not, say, God? Well, for one thing, Graves is head-over-heels for Greek gods and goddesses. He even translated the Greek myths.
    • For another, though, it's sorta hard to imagine exactly what God looks like—even Michelangelo covered him in draping clothes.
    • Even though Graves doesn't refer to his Goddess by name, we're betting it's Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war.
    • She's typically depicted with a snake and a lion, symbols of wisdom and conquering. 
    • Check out how the naked body "ablaze" in line 8 is now the goddess's body shining. By using similar adjectives, Graves is subtly linking the two bodies. The naked human form is sorta like the divine. Not too shabby, eh?
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 13-14

    The nude are bold, the nude are sly
    To hold each treasonable eye.

    • And now the tables turn. We were thinking about naked people, but now we're in a new stanza. We're moving on. It's the nude's turn to take the stand. 
    • And oh, what a bad turn it is. Sly? That doesn't sound like such a great trait. 
    • The hits keep on coming. Instead of paying attention to the sort of people who are observing the nude (like we do the naked body), we notice how the nude seems to "hold" or captivate us. It's sorta like the sirens in The Odyssey. They just suck you in.
    • We've just got to make one little technical point (hey, that's why you love us). Remember how there's a comma after "The nude are bold"? Well, Graves reinforces the separation in the line by introducing a hidden couplet: line 14 includes the word "hold." Hold and bold rhyme. Cool, huh?
    • Plus, treason is a pretty strong offensive. It's when a part (like, say, an eye) turns against a whole (like, say, the soul or the rest of the person). Think Benedict Arnold. And, hey. If you noticed that Graves is using metonymy again in describing eyes, pat yourself on the back. You're a quick study.

    Lines 15-18

    While draping by a showman's trick
    Their dishabille in rhetoric,
    They grin a mock-religious grin
    Of scorn at those of naked skin
    .

    • This stanza is all about performing its own trickiness. "Dishabille" is a fancy word for being undressed. In other words, it's a bunch of rhetoric. And that's pretty much what our speaker is arguing. By calling something a "nude," we're trying to make is all arty and culture-y and, well, not naked. 
    • And even more importantly, if being naked is slightly pagan (think about the "Goddess" from the last stanza), then calling something a nude is, in the speaker's mind, a judgmental way of saying that there are good and bad naked bodies. It's like the mean girls in, say, Mean Girls—the ones who snicker whenever something's not quite cool enough.
    • Come to think about it, "nude" sounds sorta like a mean girl.
  • Stanza 4

    Line 19-20

    The naked, therefore, who compete
    Against the nude may know defeat;

    • The evidence has all been brought out. It's time for the verdict. And the winner is….
    • Well, it seems to be the nude. It's okay. Take a minute for a collective sigh. Injustice. The world is unfair. 
    • Once again, Graves uses the first two lines of the stanza to announce its theme. It's a very systematic way of breaking down a theoretical concept like, say, distinctions in meanings of similar words.

    Lines 21-24

    Yet when they both together tread
    The briary pastures of the dead,
    By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
    How naked go the sometime nude!

    • But wait! All is not lost. Just when you think that the sneaky, tricky, mean-girl-like nude has won the day, Graves pulls out a stunning reversal. 
    • You may think that the nude wins, but no. When everyone is dead, all bodies are treated the same. There. Aren't you happy now? We're all naked.
    • It's quite a weird victory for the naked, right? After all, we here at Shmoop would generally rather be alive than dead. But then again, this might just be Graves' take on the old "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" line. We're all just sacks of bones—or very complicated biological mechanisms. Whatever. You get the general idea. 
    • Whatever you call our bodies, they are all mortal. Even the most arty, pretty nude will decompose in a coffin somewhere. So there. 
    • By the way, we're pretty thrilled that his version of death is so exciting. Whipped by Gorgons? That's quite an action-packed afterlife. 
    • Want to know more about these Gorgons? Check out our "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section. Let's just say this for now: Medusa was a Gorgon. Medusa turns people into stone. And what often comes in stone? Statues, just like the nudes. See? It all comes together in the end.