Thursday, April 17, 2014

Analysis of "Not Waving but Drowning" by Stevie Smith

Original poem reprinted online here: "Not Waving but Drowning" by Stevie Smith
Originally read: September 20, 2013
More information about the Poet: Stevie Smith



The refrain of the poem, "Not Waving but Drowning" happens twice in this poem -- once at the end of the first stanza, and again on the end of the last stanza.  Why the refrain, well, I think it sets up this idea of waving -- going forward and going back.

What also adds this idea of going forward and going back is the endstopped stanzas which are pretty much self contained.

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

At this point the "drowning" is more literal in the sense, but the dead man lay moaning is an interpreted metaphor.  The speaker is placing he words in the dead man's mouth; however, the setting is observant with the speaker nothing "nobody heard him."

     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

Until the last line, the perspective seems based on the observations of the speaker so there's a tinge of the personal with, "poor chap," and a sense of empathy with the cause of death, "too cold for him his heart gave way."   But then the last line just reels in the coldness with "they said" a ubiquitous noun and so "they" don't know the man, and what is spread around is gossip.

     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.

So the last line takes on a metaphorical stance, the mask niceties like waving creates that hide the drowning man who being "too far out all my life" didn't connect with anyone: speaker, they, up until the drowned man's death.

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