I initially learned about writer Robert Graves through his interpretations of classic Greek myths, but I later encountered him during my undergraduate years kicking around the English department of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I found my first (and favorite) Graves poem, “The Naked and the Nude” in a poetry class there. The poem appeared in a collection called Perrine’s Sound And Sense: An Introduction To Poetry. Here it is:
The Naked and the Nude
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.
Lovers without reproach will gaze
On bodies naked and ablaze;
The Hippocratic eye will see
In nakedness, anatomy;
And naked shines the Goddess when
She mounts her lion among men.
The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
While draping by a showman’s trick
Their dishabille in rhetoric,
They grin a mock-religious grin
Of scorn at those of naked skin.
The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometime nude!
Graves became famous for his strange claims of esoteric inspiration from a muse he dubbed “the White Goddess,” a beautiful, but ultimately unforgiving spirit responsible for the poet’s strange mixture of original, mythical, and historical themes. While not so grandiose or baroque as the complex mythology created by poet William Blake, Graves’ work remains accessible to anyone possessing a love for classic mythology and ethereal verse.
While Mr. Graves also wrote plenty of short and long fiction (I, Claudius), and dabbled in many other literary areas, the best way to get a feel for his poetry would be to seek out his Collected Poems. I am disappointed to report that CLP currently does not have the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Complete Poems: In One Volume, but we will be addressing that soon! Graves’ poetry provides a wonderful look into a bygone era of lyrical lines and mythical allusions, and if your ears possess the necessary acuity, you too may hear the whispers of the White Goddess when reading it.