While the poem seems to present Lady G as a representative of feminine independence, operating in the masculine world to effect social change, her actions are carefully constrained so that the power imbalance remains unaltered.
Just as the picture frame prescribes a space where a naked woman is acceptable, but absolves the viewer from the charge of purience by establishing an “aesthetic” context, so the poem sets up a series of frames to contain the explosive potential of Lady G’s act. Had the woman who posed for the painting at the top of this blog, could not have walked naked past her picture in the art gallery in Tennyson’s time. (I’m not even sure she’d get away with it today.) For years a “Lady Godiva” annually rode through Coventry at the head of a procession, however, she was always represented by a woman who had been dressed up to appear naked (or earlier on, by a boy who had been dressed up to look like a naked woman.) Kenneth Clarke says the nude is one way of putting the body “beyond desire and time”. In a sense it anesthetizes by aestheticissing (Then again Clarke had obviously not met Leopold Bloom)
1) It’s a poem.
The first frame of containment is that this is a poem, a conscious piece of “High Art” validated, even early in his career, by Tennyson’s name. It immediately establishes a sense of aesthetic distance from the reader. If we were reading an Anglo-Saxon charter which had been authenticated by a posse of quarreling experts in which Earl Leofric remitted the taxes of the people of Coventry because his wife had ridden naked round the town, we would read this story differently.
2) Within the poem a series of interlocked frames minimise and contain the subversive potential of the ride. The most obvious one for the reader is that it’s consciously “historical”. We are distanced from the action by Tennyson’s casual introduction; “I hung with”, which puts us “amongst grooms and porters” at that technological wonder of his age; the railway. He’s too good a poet to snap the poem shut by returning to his grooms and porters at the end, but “an everlasting name” withdraws from the immediacy of the telling as though the camera suddenly shifted into a long shot.
This initial frame and final drawing back suppresses any urge on the reader’s part to extend the act’s consequences beyond the relief of the tax. We are not invited to consider how Leofric’s peers would have responded to the news that his wife had ridden naked round the town. Nor are we asked to speculate about the way the story might have been reported in non-clerical circles, or the slanderous rumours that would have quickly developed about the ride. Nor are we asked to think how lady g felt the next time she met the good people of the town.
The poem “protects” them all by snapping shut.