Study Guide

The Naked and the Nude Themes

  • Lust

    If fine art is one end of the spectrum for a body without clothes, another might be pornography. That's a pretty wide spectrum, huh? And let's face it, getting too excited about art is usually considered to be poor form. In "The Naked and the Nude," lust becomes something like a threat. If a naked body is attractive, maybe it will spark lust. And that's a bad thing. Then again, if the nude seduces with its promise of cultural capital and artistic value, isn't that a bad thing, as well? That's the quandary "The Naked and the Nude" holds out for us.

    Questions About Lust

    1. Why does the poet choose to pick on lexicographers? Why use them as expert definitions of the words "naked" and "nude"?
    2. Which seems to attract more lust: the naked body viewed by a lover or the nude? What lines help you to draw your conclusions? Why?
    3. Is desire described as a good or bad thing in this poem? Who's judging in this poem? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    Yay, naked. Even though it seems like nakedness is scorned by the artistic and cultural elite, the poem suggests that it's better than nudity.

    Yay, nude. Even though nudity is described as cunning ("bold" and "sly") by the speaker of "The Naked and the Nude," it's actually described as doing the work art should do: it attracts attention.

  • Appearances

    What really is beautiful? Is it the airbrushed lady that you see on a magazine cover? The crazily-ripped guy who poses in a Speedo? Or the regular person who just happens to have a body that's…a body? That's actually the question that gets right at the heart of "The Naked and the Nude." Is a body only acceptable when it's presented in a certain way, like when it's nude and not just plain old naked? Why are some kinds of nakedness culturally acceptable and not others? After all, we walk past naked statues without blinking an eye. But a streaker? Now that's a scandal. Or is it?

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Why do you think we don't have any examples of the nude to compare to the concrete examples of nakedness? 
    2. How you think the poem would be different if it were accompanied by images? What images would you use? 
    3. Which description do you think is the most appealing in the poem? Why?

    Chew on This

    Because the poem only uses a very vague description of the nude, it's hard to make an accurate comparison between the relative values of the two terms. Maybe if this poem were illustrated?

    Despite all its attempts to confuse the terms "naked" and "nude," the poem always asserts that appearances are incredibly important. (Guess we better put down this second pint of Ben & Jerry's.)

  • Death

    This theme's a sneaky one, since it doesn't seem to enter into "The Naked and the Nude" until the very, very end. But you could think of it as the dramatic twist that makes the whole poem click into place. Beautiful? That's great, but you're still going to die. Got a face only a mother would love? Well, too bad, but you're gonna die someday, too. And the same goes for different types of "dishabille." Whether you think of nudity as another word for a fancy airbrushing in all your Facebook pics, or you're just plain naked and enjoying it, death will visit you all. Feeling better now?

    Questions About Death

    1. Wait—isn't art immortal? So why does Graves discuss "dead" nudes? What lines in the poem give you your ideas? 
    2. What sort of afterlife is the poem imagining? Why do you think it's so incredible?
    3. Do either the nakeds or the nudes seem like real people who live and die? Why or why not? 
    4. What does death have to do with nudity? How might the speaker answer that question?

    Chew on This

    Death is a great leveler; distinctions between different types of humanity all collapse when we die. (Hooray?)

    Technical foul. Graves uses death as a heavy-handed and disproportionate way to enforce a small technical distinction between two terms.

  • Art and Culture

    What's so artistic about the nude? Well, that's the million-dollar question. After all, we've all got bodies, right? And we've all seen naked bodies. So why are some representations of naked bodies art? What makes them so different from other naked bodies? And what does that say about our relationship to nakedness, in general? Are we just ashamed to be naked? Does it take art to make our cultural squeamishness about nakedness into something that's okay? Man, "The Naked and the Nude" sure poses a lot of questions.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What sorts of arts do you think are alluded to in Graves' account of the nude? How can you tell?
    2. How come the arts are so snobbish, anyway? What's so great about them, anyway? How might our speaker answer that question? 
    3. There seem to be two types of culture here: "high" culture and real life. How are they different? 
    4. Why do you think Graves chooses to pick on the words used to describe bodies without clothes? Who cares what word is used?
    5. How might the speaker answer that question?

    Chew on This

    "The Naked and the Nude" is pretty hostile to art. Easy there, Mr. Speaker.

    "The Naked and the Nude" tries to create a new type of art that doesn't rely upon stuck-up stereotypes. Good for you, Mr. Speaker.