Archive Project: “The Naked Goddess”

“The Naked Goddess,” a strikingly long poem by James Thomson (http://vqa.dickinson.edu/poem/naked-goddess), is the story of a goddess (surprise!) who is found communing with animals in the woods. The poem examines her influence on a community, particularly two children from that community, using these and other elements to emphasize tensions between men and women, children and adults, social order and nature, and a smattering of other dichotomies. There is even a bit of tension between religion and divinity, although the most overt queerness can be seen in the goddess’s refusal to bend to religiously based gender roles and other oppressive social structures. While I only have space to analyze a small section from the first half of the poem, the latter half deals with colonialism and a pair of lovers, allowing for even more queer readings of this text.

For my excerpt, I chose five stanzas from the second and third pages of the poem (pages 167 and 168 in the publication). The first of these stanzas (the fifth in the poem) employs sensual language while solidifying the connection between the goddess and nature. The goddess’s lack of clothing is emphasized, and she is shown fondling and caressing animals. In this situation, her sexuality is on display—along with every other part of her—and the onlooking crowd, one can assume, is rather scandalized. However, the crowd isn’t given the opportunity to express the kind of outrage that one might expect from a group of Victorians confronted with a naked woman. Instead, the next stanza sees the crowd silenced by the roar of a lion and the reaction of the goddess as she “Sprang erect, grew up in height, / Smote them with the flash and blaze / Of her terrible, swift gaze.” By using the word erect to characterize the goddess’s actions, Thomson challenges gender roles, and arguably the gender binary itself. He depicts the goddess as being full of awe-inspiring power. Since the goddess uses this power in masculine (exerting herself over the crowd) and feminine (lovingly caressing dangerous animals) ways, her gender is somewhat muddy, despite the emphasis on her status as a member of the female sex.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas from this excerpt, a priest and a sage take turns asking the goddess to give up her wild nature. The priest emphasizes religiously based values such as self-sacrifice and virginity, while the sage attempts to convince the goddess that she is wasting her mind. Both stanzas are full of queerness, emphasizing many of the ways in which the goddess does not fit into Victorian British society. She is given clothing with which she is supposed to cover up, again highlighting her nakedness. Furthermore, by encouraging her to become a “clean and chaste” virgin, the priest implies that the goddess is not “clean and chaste” (the latter being a reasonable assumption, given that she is naked and fondling animals in the woods). This is clearly meant to be a shameful suggestion, but the goddess isn’t fazed. Meanwhile, the sage suggests that living with the beasts makes her ignorant in an attempt to enforce a separation between humans and nature, a separation that the goddess blatantly ignores.

The rest of the poem is no less queer than my chosen excerpt. While she makes a polite effort to listen to both men, the goddess eventually rejects the stifling lives offered by the priest and the sage. As the story develops, the themes I mentioned at the start of this post combine to form a nuanced critique of Victorian social norms, resulting in a fascinating piece of literature.

Citation:

Thomson, James. “The Naked Goddess.” Our Corner, vol. i, no. 3, 1883, p. 166+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/3yo9Y2. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.

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