In Robert Graves' poem, "The Naked and the Nude," what is indicated by the word naked (from old English "nacod" while nude comes from Latin "nudus")?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Graves is presenting a challenge to "lexicographers" who say the words "nude" and "naked" "should express / The same" state of undress.

Graves contends the two words are as unlike each other as "love" is from "lie" and as "truth" is from "art." In other words, Graves insists "naked" and "nude" are not synonyms and cannot be used interchangeably.

In stanza two Graves defines "naked" as being the quality of undress between two adults who tenderly love each other; as being the quality of undress of a goddess who reveals her beauty and might as a matter of course among mortals; as being the quality of undress presented to a medical practitioner who sees in order to aid.

In stanza three Graves defines "nude" as that condition of undress practiced by those who are "bold," "sly," and treasonous (treason is willful betrayal). These are characterized by scorn, trickery, insincerity (trickery is by nature insincere), and grinningly mocking (ridiculing).

It is clear by these definitions that Graves perceives a vast social and cultural difference between the condition of loving, giving, and admiring nakedness and wanton, scorning, mocking, treasonable nudeness: nudes are bold about what they flaunt, nakedness is humble, caring, and gentle in what it offers.

The last stanza dramatizes Graves' metaphor of nakedness and nudeness being representative of a person's inner quality, or character, or traits—of a person's inner goodness or wickedness. He points out that when the bold and aggressive (nude) go up against the humble and tender (naked), the humble, gentle naked one may lose, may seem insignificant and may be overwhelmed and downtrodden.

Then Graves locates his metaphor in a setting of the afterlife, the "briary pastures of the dead." Here, he says that the bold, scornful, treasonous ones (the nude ones) will find themselves chased with punishing whips by vicious "Gorgons." Then, in the anguish of punishment, the bold nude ones will be humbled and exposed for what they really are: they will be nakedly exposed before all for the wretched bullies and fakes they were all along. Interestingly, to express this paradoxical twist on his metaphor Graves introduces a second meaning of "naked," using "naked" as exposed, revealed, unhidden, stripped of falsehood.

Therefore in Graves' poem, "naked" means two things. First, it means the innocent state of undress between sincere, caring people (lovers, doctor and patient, goddess and mortal) who are offering good and tenderness to each other. Second, it means the condition of being exposed with every flaw, lie, treachery, falseness, arrogance, and scorn left open for all to see so that the ugly truth of a bold nude person is revealed.

Yet when they both together tread [both: the humble naked and the bold nude]
The briary [thorn laden] pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons [female clawed monsters] with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometimes nude!


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