Rexroth’s “Floating” in Support of Back to Nature Movement

Can nature fulfill all the pleasures human being seeks? Nature is mostly benevolent but partly it may be unkind too. However, this research paper attempts to analyze only the beneficence of nature, with special reference to Kenneth Rexroth’s poem “Floating.”

This paper will first summarize the poem, though no reviews can be found, and go on to analyze issues related to nature. Though special preference is given only to “Floating” other references also will frequently occur in support of the thesis. More importantly, it will present the benevolence and power of nature, the relationship between human, and nature and the poet’s take on nature. For a theoretical application, this paper employs John Hannigan’s concept of Arcadian Discourse. Hence, this paper is a reading of Rexroth’s poem from the perspective of ecological consciousness.

“Floating” presents a landscape that welcomes visitors very less frequently; an unknown river, in the northern central part of the US. It runs “through woods, pastures, and past muddy fords.” A couple goes sailing up against the current of the river. It is not the main big river but its backwater in which they sail their canoe in slow motion until they get tired of paddling. The river doesn’t rush but idles because it is full of water lilies which make the voyageurs difficult to pass by. At shallow places, they spot some signs of cattle through the strong smell that lays thick across the water. In exhaustion, the couple falls into each other’s arms, during which, the speaker claims, “the palps of waterlily leaf and petal hold back/ All

motion in the heat, thickened, drowsing air.” The western wind sighs and sings them the erotic melodies of generations past. The erotic music inspires the couple and they start seeking physical pleasure from one another. The speaker asks his beloved to kiss him, move softly, and part her thighs, and take him in. He argues that such moments are very rare, so they need to make the most of the time. During the ecstatic moments, the time slides away without their knowing. In this occasion, the speaker says, that the flesh becomes timeless, though it is mortal.

Rexroth’s poem “Floating” extols nature very implicitly and philosophically. It connects the reproductive quality of human beings with that of nature and emphasizes that for human reproduction, nature is inevitable. Since sex is the indication of reproduction and since the couple is making love in the middle of a river, the river itself is quite symbolic. In this sense, the voyage indicates the journey of the couple’s life and the river can be taken as semen. In the American context, this poem can be taken as an out-product of ‘back to nature’ movement or in another way, it might have influenced the back to nature movement. There was massive industrial and scientific enhancement in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th century. This caused rapid disappearance of natural landscapes to which era novelist John Fowles named “the plastic garden, the steel city, the chemical countryside.” In this poem, the couple goes to a less frequently visited river for even for sexual intercourse. The rapid growth of industries and unexpected scientific developments, have not only eased the human life but they have given a bigger threat to human privacy and security. So, this poem epitomizes the growing pessimistic reactions to industries and scientific inventions, which are against nature. The celebration of the rustic pastures, woods, and plants doesn’t last long, for nature is not the same everywhere. The poet raises the issues of injustice given to nature in the name of development and modernization. Rexroth’s intention is not only to show the joy of nature but also its binary opposition i.e. expressing his frustration in city. To

find a proper place for making love with his own wife, the speaker has to travel for the whole afternoon which indicates the rapid extinction of proper nature for habitation with strong security.

Hannigan says, “Arcadian nature is constructed as something external to human society, or at least removed from everyday life in the city.” This discourse advocates in favor of a clean environment and protection of nature. Works of Wordsworth, Thoreau, Emerson, etc. have played important roles in the back to nature movement. Earlier, people used to regard nature as a threat to humans. In this context, Hannigan says:

As Europe and America became increasingly urbanized at the close of the nineteenth century, views towards nature began to undergo a major transformation. In particular, the concept of ‘wild nature’ as a threat to the human settlement which had long predominated gave way to a new, intensely romantic depiction in which the wilderness experience was celebrated.

Even most literary writings had presented nature as a threat during the period of human ignorance to nature. They had taken nature as their enemy, because of which much abolition of rustic landscapes took place. But the growth of population and industrial activities caused suffocation in city areas. The scientific inventions further fuelled the speed of growth of both population and industries. After that, in the close of the nineteenth century, they came to the realization that whatever they had been developing was harmful to nature. “Rather than a threat, wilderness was now seen as a precious resource.” The back to nature movement gained widespread support, ranging from educators to the religious preachers, to the presidents. In “Floating” the couple goes to nature in hope of getting a better environment even for a short period of time. Rexroth mourns the loss of security at home and the distance between nature and human. This poem also strongly criticizes those people who use nature only in need and do not care at all when they are away.

Similarly in his next poem “Incarnation,” Rexroth presents a mystical perception and heightened eroticism of nature. In this poem, the speaker walks up to a mountainside for the whole day and descends at sunset. On his way back, he observes innumerable flowers of wild iris. In those flowers, he sees the figure of his beloved which looks more real than reality. He sees every part of his beloved in those beautiful flowers and even smells the odor of her sex and feels the touch of her breasts. Far down, he sees smoke which indicates human intrusion in nature. Even the mountains are not away from human settlement. This is a mystical perception of nature. The evidence of heightened eroticism is in his vision of the speaker’s beloved in those iris flowers which present every part of her body, including the odor of her sex and touch of her breasts. The speaker, in reality, might have fallen out with his beloved and he has come to nature, seeking solace. However, nature displays an even more realistic picture of her that he had ever seen before. He not only gets solace but he is happier than he had ever been by the side of his beloved.

To conclude, this paper has attempted to show the greatness of nature toward human beings, by using different materials. “Floating” is a literary material along with “Incarnation” and Arcadian Discourse represents the theoretical support to nature. The claim of this paper has been a criticism of industrialization, modernization, and urbanization which have directly suppressed the voice of nature. These are actually anti-nature because though they claim themselves to be in favor of human civilization, they are actually harming the nature which is the most inevitable part for any life to survive. Hence, this mini-research paper claims that we must protect nature and make the environment clean for the best of ourselves and generations to come.

Works Cited

Hannigan, John. “Environmental Discourse.” Environmental Literature and Criticism: M.A. English 2nd Semester Course Packet. T. U. Books Centre: Kathmandu, Print.

Rexroth, Kenneth. “Floating – Poem by Kenneth Rexroth.” web.

Rexroth, Kenneth. “Incarnation.” Environmental Literature and Criticism: M.A.

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