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An Analysis of the Poem "Not Waving But Drowning" by Stevie Smith

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith

Summary of the Poem

"Not Waving But Drowning" is a short poem that brings to light the plight of the outsider and society's reaction to those who don't quite fit with convention.

It is an enigmatic creation with a dark underbelly, an ironic commentary flitting between voices—of the dead and the living. Time is skewed somewhat as the reader moves at a varying pace from stanza to stanza.

In the end, we're certain of one thing only: a man is dead. The question is, should this death be treated literally, or is that the death is of the relationship between him and his local community?

Whether or not his death was caused by community neglect or misunderstanding is uncertain. What seems to have happened is that his body language in the final moments was misinterpreted. He drowned, gesturing for help before he sank out of trace. People thought he was playing around. Again. He had a history of messing about and not taking things too seriously.

This rather dark ambiguity is all part of Stevie Smith the poet's persona. Her work is often seen as quirky, eccentric, and offbeat but while this may be acknowledged there is also irony, humor, and a dry, keen observation in many of her poems.

Rachel Cooke, the critic and author, notes:

“No one else sounds like her, the poems have this deceptive ease. They seem, at first, almost to be very witty, ironic nursery rhymes. But of course this is quite misleading. They are dark, and many of them come with this edge of malice. She twists the world: you recognise it, but it's disorientating, too.”

Death and isolation also interested Stevie Smith, who kept the same job for nigh on 30 years (as a secretary to a publishing executive), lived in suburban south London with her Aunt Madge where she wrote mostly forgotten novels and well-crafted poems.

These themes come up in poems such as Harold's Leap and Mr Over, tongue-in-cheek creations with serious undertones.

"Not Waving But Drowning" takes an unusual look at society: a drowning male and the reaction of those he lived among. Are they indifferent to his death, or has he encouraged their indifference by playing around as an outsider for so long?

With quick voice changeover, switching from present to past and back again and variation in pace, this poem is a mix of free form with familiar tradition such as occasional full rhyme and is a surprise success.

Not Waving But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

First Stanza

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There is a dead man who nobody hears, who is moaning. Wait a minute, how can a dead man moan? If he's moaning he's still alive, right?

This is an odd couple of opening lines, contradictory, narrated by someone distanced from the scene yet who is aware of the prostrate man. Is the word dead here used in the sense of irrelevance? Or is he physically dead, coming back to haunt?

The third and fourth lines are in the first person. The man actually speaks. He addresses the narrator, using you in the sense that here was (or is) a witness to the fact.

But was the man drowning out at sea for example or was he simply too far out from mainstream society, on the edge of happenings, not really close to others at all? And despite his seemingly playful persona, he was actually desperate to be saved. He was drowning in his own isolation.

The others had misread the signs. Or, because of the distance, couldn't make out for certain what he was up to.

Second Stanza

There is sympathy from the others though, they call him a Poor chap, a very English kind of thing to say. It means they feel sorry for his demise, for the way in which things panned out.

That word larking means to play around mischievously, in a jokey fashion. So this man was just waving for a lark because he was always doing things like that according to the others.

Well, not this time. Talk about crying wolf. They were so used to him being not too serious about life that, when he was being serious, in a life or death situation, they naturally did not respond, they did not rescue or attempt to rescue him.

Can we blame them? Or was it solely down to him and the cold weather, which brought about heart failure?

Third Stanza

The man replies to them, denying that it was too cold at the time of his waving - their relationship had always been too cold. That is, his whole life had been one long act of drowning, a pretense, long-term, without anyone really noticing.

Note the line in parentheses, brackets, which is a repeat of the second line in the opening stanza and is the voice of the original speaker, a kind of reportage voice you hear on the news.

This peculiar to and froing with voices and tense is a bit disorienting for the reader but it does reflect the uncertain relationship between the man, the individual, and the local people, and society.

So in the end, the man gets to have the final say in an attempt to clear the confusion. He refutes the idea that his drowning was a single moment of desperation and indifference; it was a culmination of factors over time...his joking, his peripheral stance, their misreading of his character, and their lack of empathy.

© 2020 Andrew Spacey

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