The song comprises the thoughts of the narrator as his mind passes over events in his life, both past and present.
The narrator is apparently a young man who makes a living by fishing, has a difficult relationship with his boss and possibly a violent one with his father. As the song progresses, we also learn what he thinks about other family members, the local economy, those older men who haven’t left for a better life, and his love life. The character which emerges is far from ideal. Amongst other things he turns out to be bored, myopic, easily angered, violent, pessimistic, prejudiced, lazy and cruel. And he lets us know that while he’s putting up with his existence, he’s lost all hope of improving it.
While there are few positive qualities to balance the negative, it’s easy to recognise in the narrator a perfectly normal human being. And because he’s someone with whom we can relate, we can take the song seriously as an exploration of spiritual and material deficiencies which cause unhappiness.1 We not only become aware of the faults which can bring about loss of hope, but of how these in turn can impinge on the happiness of others.
The piece is divided up into the following sections:
- Obsession With Death
- More Violence
- Emerging life
- Spiritual Life
- Negative Outlook
- Old Versus New
- Excuses For Inactivity
From the outset the narrator is blind to what’s really the case. Bored, he resigns himself to:
‘Another one of them endless days’.
Yet, the day is not endless. Blinded by the dazzling rays, he fails to realise that their coming down over the window shows the sun to be setting, so that in fact the day is nearing its end.
This inability of the narrator’s to see what’s really the case is present throughout the song. So, when he says about his father that he’s:
‘Never seen him quarrel …’
with his mother, we can assume that he has simply failed to see what should have been obvious. That his father does in fact quarrel with his mother is lent support by the otherwise irrelevant-seeming comment that his father has ‘more lives than a cat’. The implication is that his father is a violent sort, constantly getting into scrapes. This is further backed up by the description of him as a ‘feudal lord’, suggesting an uncompromising desire to dominate, and with his own dealings with his father dealt with below.
This failure to see is not limited to the behaviour of others. It applies to the consequences of the narrator’s own behaviour. Thus when he says he’s:
‘… seen enough heartache and strife’,
he seems oblivious to the fact that he himself, as becomes apparent in the final verse, is a major cause of heartache and strife.
And it applies to his interpretation of events when, in the context of times being hard, the narrator says:
‘We’ll just have to see how it goes’.
As will become apparent, things are unlikely to go well for the narrator.
2. Obsession With Death
While the narrator sees no end to the misery of the day, he does recognise an end. But it’s the ultimate end – annihilation, death:
‘But old, young, age don’t carry weight
It doesn’t matter in the end’
His focus on death is especially apparent when he issues a warning:
‘If ever you try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own life’.
Not only does this amount to a threat to take life, but it can be seen as a threat to take his father’s life. This is because the phrase ‘cross my path’, in seeming to treat the addressee as a black cat bringing bad luck, takes up an earlier cat reference. This was to the narrator’s father who, we’re told, has:
‘… more lives than a cat’
Death is again the narrator’s preoccupation when he tells us his hopes are:
‘… buried under tobacco leaves’
– buried, that is, as if they’re a corpse. Death has replaced hope.
3. More Violence
Ironically, the narrator assumes he needs to resort to violence in his own situation. This is despite claiming that the tactic doesn’t work on the ground that the threat to:
‘… strong-arm you, inspire you with fear’
has ‘the opposite effect’.
While ‘the opposite effect’ could mean that it causes him not to be afraid, this is unlikely. Why, if he’s fearless, should he:
‘… keep listenin’ for footsteps’?
It seems more likely that ‘the opposite effect’ will be for him to attack his aggressor. That would be consistent with his later warning that he might retaliate:
‘If you try to interfere with me …
You do so at the peril of your own life’.
That the narrator has a propensity to violence is also apparent in the final verse when he assumes he needs to ‘kick someone out’ rather than to simply ask them to go.
4. Emerging Life
This concern with death is made to seem unduly pessimistic for often where the narrator sees only death, there’s new life emerging. Even the leaves he imagines burying his hopes are beginning ‘to stir’ thereby suggesting that there is hope.
An unconscious awareness of such emerging life is indicated by the narrator’s use of the word ‘come’. ‘Coming’ is a word we often associate with new life or activity, whereas ‘going’ tends to be connected with death. The latter is the case when, in the context of times being held to be hard the narrator says:
‘We’ll just have to see how it goes’.
He means he’ll wait to see what his present way of life turns up. He’s clearly no intention of experimenting with a new one.
However, rather than the sun being said to going down, its rays are said to ‘come(s)’ down, suggesting it’s bringing new life rather than just the death of the day.
‘Come’ is associated with new life again when in the narrator’s family:
‘Things come alive …’.
The implication is that they come alive having previously been inanimate or capable only of dying – ‘they fall flat’.
And the word ‘come’ is used to indicate activity when we’re told :
‘One of the boss’ hangers-on
Comes to call …’
Whereas the narrator’s dismissal of the caller as a ‘hanger-on’ casts the caller as a parasite, with no life of his own, in fact, the opposite is the case. Far from being parasitical, when he ‘comes to call’ he’s actively pursuing his own life. He’s only a hanger-on’ to the very limited extent that he relies on the boss for employment, but that – one would think – hardly amounts to ground for criticism.
5. Spiritual life
The emergence of new life should have a double significance for the narrator. It not only signifies that he ought to be able to fashion a better material life for himself, but that there’s opportunity for him to resolve spiritual deficiencies in his make-up.
It’s ironic that immediately prior to announcing that his hopes are ‘buried’ the narrator overlooks one sign of hope associated with new life. He remembers:
‘… all the ring-dancin’ Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves’
The ring-dancing reminds us, through association with hearing ‘the school bell ring’, that the narrator has something to learn. Since Christmas is obviously associated with birth, the implication would seem to be that this something is the need to acquire a new life. It would seem significant, therefore, that the narrator gets only as far as remembering Christmas eves but falls short of remembering the day itself. It’s as if he’s always just on the verge of new life, but unable to get beyond death. Hence his hopes are buried with the Christmas eves.
The narrator’s failure to associate Christmas with new life is consistent with his failure to notice a spiritual presence in nature. Thus the sun which should enable him to see can be seen to represent the new life associated with Christmas – the son of God.2 The summer breeze – positive when compared with a squall which the narrator pessimistically sees it as a precursor to – could remind us of the Holy Spirit.3
The spiritual gap in his life thus represented is made more obvious when we remember his announcing about his second cousin:
‘I tell myself I could be happy forever with her’
As the last verse will make clear, the manner of his pursuing a relationship with her is unlikely to enable him to ‘be happy forever’ i.e. in spiritual language, to have eternal happiness. The idea of ending a co-existing relationship, which he seems to recognise as a necessary pre-requisite for such happiness, is something he considers ‘too much to ask’.
6. Negative Outlook
The narrator’s failing to notice the capacity things have for life is matched by a general negative outlook. In the case of the natural world this negativity is not just towards the sun. It applies to the sound of the bees, the activity of the wind and the temperature of the rain.
Sometimes this negativity is conveyed through his choice of language. The narrator disapproves of the sunlight for being ‘dazzling’, but then when the ‘z’ sound of ‘dazzling’ reoccurs in ‘buzzin’, the effect is to transfer his negative attitude towards the sun onto the activity of the bees, so that he seems to resent them too.
The same happens when the ‘z’ sound occurs again in ‘breeze’ so that it’s unsurprising he associates what should be pleasant – it’s a ‘summer breeze’ – with a squall to be avoided.
Negativity is also apparent in the narrator’s attitude towards the people who have left. It comes out in his derisive use of ‘them’. The expression:
‘… them rebel rivers’
is disdainful, just as:
‘… them endless days’
Furthermore in saying:
‘They all got out of here any way they could
The cold rain can give you the shivers’
he not only treats the people’s motive as if it merely to escape, but implies their reason for escaping to be no more than a dislike of the weather. Rather than recognise that people might have their own individual reasons for leaving, it would seem he’s imposing on others a trivial and negative concern of his own.
The expression ‘They all got out’ is also an indication of an unrealistically negative view of those who left. The absurd exaggeration seems to imply, unfairly given the lack of any supporting reason, that those who left lack individuality.
The narrator is again unduly negative in uncritically accepting what he’s heard, namely that:
‘… times are hard’.
If they were really hard, one might have expected him to have joined the leavers in trying his luck elsewhere. Instead we once again find him exaggerating in order to provide himself with an excuse for staying put:
‘It don’t bother me – times are hard everywhere’.5
Not only is the claim that times are hard everywhere a ludicrous generalisation, but there are good reasons to doubt that times are hard for the narrator. First, there are signs that food is plentiful. He himself catches a lot of fish, and gives no indication that the catch is ever inadequate.
Secondly, in an attempt to prove that times are hard, he says:
‘You can just follow your nose’,
using the expression in its colloquial sense. Ironically, that same expression taken literally would have made it obvious that times are not hard. If you literally follow your nose, it’ll take you to both warmth, and olfactory pleasure:
‘You can smell the pinewood burnin’’.
Not only is there wood for fires, but it’s good quality wood which ‘burns with the bark still on’.
7. Old Versus New
That there is life, and that the narrator could achieve it, is brought out by the contrasts between old and new on the one hand, and young and old on the other. On one level the old is associated with death and the new with the life which replaces it. So, the new grove of trees is clearly better than the old one because the wood burns more effectively. And the new clothes that the grandmother makes from old cloth would clearly be better than just the old cloth itself.
While the narrator recognises the advantages of the new over the old, he seems to assume the young are similarly superior to the old. This is despite initially seeming to be neutral:
‘But old, young, age don’t carry weight’
He’s giving the impression of having weighed up the respective advantages of youth and age and of coming down neither on one side nor the other. If this is deliberate, it’s disingenuous. He’s fooling himself. When he says ‘age don’t carry weight’, this more naturally refers to advanced age, rather than youth. He’s really claiming that years, and the experience which comes with them, count for nothing. This is borne out by his blaming those older than himself for the breakdown in relationships with the relatively young:
‘The old men … get
On bad terms with the younger men’
Here it seems likely he’s casting blame on his father, whom he refers to as ‘my old man’, for the breakdown of their relationship .
If the narrator is assuming that the young have an advantage over the old, it would seem to be confined to his own case. That with respect to others he can take the opposite line becomes apparent when he describes a classroom incident.5
The classroom incident involves two ironies.
First the narrator wrongly assumes that the older person, the teacher, is the only one he can learn from. This is apparent when, in a rare positive statement, he says:
‘Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
If you wanna learn anything’
The context would appear to be a minor disturbance in a lesson brought about by a boy’s making insulting comments about a girl’s appearance:
‘… “You got a poor complexion.
It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch”’
Perhaps because it’s an English lesson, and because the boy might just be incompetently trying to chat the girl up, the narrator ironically dismisses the warring pair as Romeo and Juliet. Instead of being dismissively glib, however, he would have done better to learn from the girl’s response:
‘… ‘Why don’t you just shove off
If it bothers you so much’’
The retort is appropriate. Not only did the boy deserve to be put down, but – given that the narrator has nothing more to say about it – it seems likely that the girl did enough to resolve the incident. There’s no sign, even, that an intervention from the teacher has been needed.
The second irony lies in the fact that, although he isn’t aware of it, in a sense the boy is right when he says the girl’s appearance lacks ‘a youthful touch’. She acts with un-youthful maturity in making an immediate and decisive response. In the final verse we find a comparably immediate and decisive response from the older narrator to be woefully lacking. It’s the young girl’s response, then, that the narrator would have done well to learn from instead of complaining about not having been able to hear the older teacher.
9. Excuses For Inactivity
It’s probably the narrator’s proclivity for inaction which accounts for the song’s title Floater. Sometimes this inactivity seems to be caused by laziness. His assertion that it’s:
To get into any kind of wind’
would appear to be an excuse for not working since the phrase ‘any kind of’ would seem to cover even an innocuous summer breeze.
And while some of the inhabitants are active:
‘They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
All the rest of them rebel rivers’,
the narrator, treats going ‘down’ the rivers as obviously bad, just as he treated the sun’s coming ‘down’ as bad when in so doing it was actively providing the very end to the day he wanted. The disparaging tone seems intended to justify his not joining them.
The narrator’s laziness is made particularly clear when he’s compared with the boy. The girl tells the boy to leave her alone if her appearance ‘bothers’ him. The word ‘bothers’ reminds us that the narrator uses the same word when describing his response to those who say times are hard:
‘It don’t bother me …’
Had times actually been hard, it should have bothered him. Whereas the boy ought to have been less bothered than he is, the narrator ought to have been more bothered. He uses his not being bothered as an excuse for doing nothing.
Not all the narrator’s inactivity can be attributed to laziness, though. This becomes apparent in the final verse:
‘It’s not always easy kicking someone out
Gotta wait a while – it can be an unpleasant task
Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up
And tears or not, it’s too much to ask’.
What’s immediately noticeable in this appeal for sympathy is the narrator’s apparently deliberate vagueness. While the prefix ‘some’ occurs no less than four times in as many lines – ‘someone’, ‘sometimes’, ‘somebody’, ‘something’ – we aren’t told who is being referred to, what the ‘something’ is, or when they might want it to be given up. In choosing to use vague expressions, the narrator might seem to be deliberately masking the truth.
If so, he’s not masking it well. It’s seems probable that the ‘someone’ and the ‘somebody’ refer to different people. Despite his choice of these cold, distancing words, the only plausible candidates would seem to be the second cousin he claims to be in love with and another woman the narrator is actually, or also, living with. One of the two, presumably the one he’s not in love with, is in danger of being ‘kicked out’ at the behest of the other.
We’ve seen the narrator making excuses for inaction before so it’s not surprising to find him doing the same again. Despite the tears of one, or perhaps both, of the women, he attempts to justify maintaining a relationship with them both. It’s necessary to wait before acting, he claims, in order to spare himself unpleasantness, and yet only two lines later the need to wait has been replaced by the absence of a need to act at all. Absurdly, he’s presenting a slide from delay to total inaction as if the two are one and the same.
A second absurdity is the implication that waiting a while will help if a task is unpleasant. It won’t; it’s merely procrastinating. What’s worse is that the inadequacy of his reasons for inaction leads one to suspect that it’s not really the unpleasantness of the task of eviction that’s preventing him from performing it, but his selfish unwillingness to give up one of women. The suspicion is reinforced when, despite the distress he’s causing, he cruelly and without any attempt at justifying his response dismisses what’s required of him as ‘too much to ask’.
The final verse alone shows the narrator to be prone to violence, selfish, vacillating, inert, dissembling and cruel. Several of these traits are exemplified elsewhere in the song, thus showing how deeply embedded in his character are the causes of the unhappiness he brings on himself and others. Thus the violent tendency shown here is apparent in his earlier threatening to take someone’s life, the inertia in his failure to follow the example of others in leaving for a better life, and his dissembling in his giving the weather as a reason why others left for a new life.
The narrator’s need for a new life is made clear by reference to both material and spiritual impoverishment. Materially he’s bored by what he sees as the ‘endless days’. At the same time he’s oppressed at work and by disagreements with his father. It would seem he’d be materially better off if he followed the example of others in leaving to find a new life elsewhere. Spiritually, he’s bereft. He treats those senior to him with contempt, he sees violence as a way of resolving disagreements, and he causes unhappiness to one or more women in his life. His spiritual state is symbolised by his blindness and obsession with death. That a new material existence is possible is made apparent by the example of the young men who have left to find one. That a new spiritual life is possible is made clear through numerous ironies. Instead of benefitting from the sun, a cause of regeneration, he’s blinded by it. Instead of associating Christmas eves with new spiritual life, his memories of them get buried. And for him, the summer breeze, instead of being a sign of spiritual ubiquity, is just the precursor of a squall. There’s even a willingness to champion the new or young against the old which doesn’t get carried over into his own life.
One imagines the narrator will remain unhappy in his love life, as will the women involved – unless, that is, he gets rid of the character traits which prevented his ending a relationship. In particular it’s his affinity with violence which blinds him to the true nature of his task. Had he seen it as a matter of asking someone to go, rather than of kicking them out, he might have felt able to act. Also responsible is a proclivity for finding excuses, and so his using ‘unpleasantness’ as a reason for waiting awhile. And it’s laziness which enables him to take the easy way out of translating waiting awhile into not acting at all.
1. I stress that I use the term ‘spiritual’ in an essentially secular sense to mean moral. ‘Spiritual’ seems more appropriate because the song brings out the moral shortcomings of the narrator’s character with the help of allusions involving religious ideas. It’s not to suggest that the spiritual is concerned with anything other than the way the narrator runs his life.
The word ‘material’ is used in a slightly wider sense than usual to mean, in essence, non-moral. The narrator’s material wellbeing would therefore cover things like his family relationships and lifestyle as distinct from, say, the goods he possesses.
2. The sun appears in numerous Dylan songs in contexts which imply it’s to be associated with the Son. Dylan is continuing a tradition whose followers include the metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert who both employ a sun/Son pun. Thus Herbert in The Sonne:
‘To parents issue and the sunnes bright starre!
A sonne is light and fruit; a fruitfull flame
Chasing the fathers dimnesse, carri’d farre’
and Donne in Hymn to God the Father:
‘But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now’
3. Poe in Spirits of the Dead is one of many poets who, like Dylan, follow the biblical tradition of associating breeze with God:
‘The breeze—the breath of God—is still—
And the mist upon the hill,
Is a symbol and a token—
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!’
Leonard Cohen does the same in Light as the Breeze:
‘She stands before you naked
you can see it, you can taste it
but she comes to you light as the breeze
You can drink it or you can nurse it
it don’t matter how you worship
as long as you’re
down on your knees.’
4. The need to replace the old with the new, where the new is what is brought by Christ, is a major theme of John’s gospel. Right at the beginning there are four stories used to illustrate this theme. These are the marriage feast at Cana, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the woman at the well, and the feeding of the five thousand.
5. The narrator’s proclivity for exaggeration is also present in verse thirteen where he threatens:
‘If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own life’
The presence of ‘own’ before ‘life’ suggests that the narrator is exaggerating the danger to himself by implying that he sees his own life as threatened, and that this justifies his threatening the life of the addressee. In fact being interfered with or having your path crossed do not amount to your life being threatened.