Not Waving But Drowning by Stevie Smith

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. 

© Stevie Smith, All Rights Reserved.

Now this poem’s focal metaphor of calling out for help in distress but being mistaken for simply waving suggests to us as readers that the core conflict centers on a lack of communication and misinterpretation between the subject (or main character)  and the rest of society. We can infer that this dead man was the type to ‘put on a brave face’ (as it were) when faced with everyday dealings with society as they go on to claim ‘he always loved larking’, when we can deduce that internally the reality was rather more tragic. Smith ultimately seeks to confront us with the severe consequences of a society which lacks any form of sincere interaction, through the death of the subject while those on shore ignorantly stand by and watch. The use of the mixed perceptions; flitting between the first and third person narrative also highlights the segregation between the dead man and others around him, creating a barrier and distance between even the poem’s omniscient speaker. The use of the first person narrative is particularly interesting and hints that the speaker of the poem is also the subject himself due to the frequent uses of personal pronoun ‘I’ when depicting the ‘dead man.’ Although the poem opens with an ostensibly third person narrative in addressing the subject of the poem as ‘the dead man’, but then goes onto adopting the first person perspective of the subject, claiming that ‘I was much further out than you thought.’ It would be feasible to suggest that the speaker and the subject are in fact one and the same as their consideration of themselves as ‘the dead man’ further bolsters the idea that the man is completely disconnected from all things and continues in a self-contained existence. As he is speaking after his death and is seemingly looking down upon the scene, he is ultimately considering himself separate from his own dead body; perhaps beginning to reveal his internal duality.

Smith’s starkly contrasting tone in relation to the major themes of this poem (being mainly the morbidity of death) is another point of interest for us as readers. The ironic tone depicting a man whose body language has been misinterpreted could be considered darkly humorous. It seems so unfeasible that one would misinterpret a cry for help as a casual wave that it borders on absurdity. If we extend our understanding of the speaker’s perception of society, we can infer that perhaps Smith is covertly poking fun at society are themselves submerged in their ignorance – just as those on shore idly stand by and watch the drowning man, unable to differentiate between signals from relatively simplistic body language. Smith continues her cynically humorous commentary of society’s stupidity through the use of colloquial language such as ‘poor chap’ and ‘oh, no no no.’ This adoption of an informal tone fundamentally suggests the format of a simple anecdote that one would tell at a dinner party, intensifying our disdain for society’s empathetic qualities, as they continue to vacantly observe and take no action when faced with a ‘drowning man.’

Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

Stevie Smith (1902-1971)