I found myself happily vulnerable to Forster's brand of pagan humanism in this, his third novel, written between "The Longest Journey" and "Howards End." In a tale of heterosexual romance, the erotic center is the determinedly cheerful and healthy episode of 3 men bathing in the woods, two of whom are young in years, the third, a clergyman, young in spirit. Do they strip to their birthday suits or are they semi-covered in the obligatory loincloth? Forster is coy. Mr Beebe, the clergyman, seems to have jumped in with his underwear since, upon discovery by a trio of his parishioners, he crawls "out of the pond, on whose surface garments of an intimate nature did float." George, the romantic lead, confronts his discoverers "barefoot, barechested, radiant and personable against the shadowy woods." So he is presumably girded but the description lingers all over his nakedness. Pessimistic and passionate George, rumored to be a train porter (with proletariat muscles), turns out to be a station clerk with Ideas of his own.
Forster's tease begins when the men enter the pond:
"Water's wonderful!" cried Freddy, prancing in.
"Water's water," murmured George. Wetting his hair first--a sure sign of apathy--he followed Freddy into the divine, as indifferent as if he were a statue and the pond a pail of soapsuds. It was necessary to use his muscles. It was necessary to keep clean. Mr. Beebe watched them, and watched the seeds of the willow-herb dance chorically above their heads.
"Apooshoo, apooshoo, apooshoo," went Freddy, swimming for two strokes in either direction, and then becoming involved in reeds or mud.
"Is it worth it?" asked the other, Michelangelesque on the flooded margin.
The bank broke away, and he fell into the pool before he had weighed the question properly.
Describing George as "Michelangelesque" merely particularize, on one level, the earlier reference to "statue", reinforcing the idea of George's indifferent stillness at the edge of the pond. The charged adjective, however, also evokes in the mind the sculptor's ready-for-action statues, in particular, that of the thoroughly naked David. The adjective functions like a fig-leaf; it reveals more than it covers.
Also, Forster is surely having fun making the bachelor clergyman, the Christian antagonist to paganism, the voyeur of the bathing scene before he joins the young men in the pond. That Mr. Beebe's gaze is erotic, unknown to himself, is underlined by his attention to the willow-herb seeds dancing, "chorically" no less.
Finally, one wonders how the three men swim in the tiny pond without bumping into each other. The pond was only "large enough to contain the human body." Forster's answer: "Three gentlemen rotated in the pool breast high." You can imagine how short the radius of that rotating circle. Is it any surprise that after a little while of such rotation the men "began to play"? They splash each other with water, of course.