Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith: Summary and Analysis

Not Waving but Drowning is one of the most appreciated poem of Stevie Smith which was chosen as the fourth favorite poem in England in 1995. Her trademark of moving from comic to tragic and from the simplicity to the darker theme of life is vividly projected in this short poem.

Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

When the poem commences one of the speaker of the poem is passively reporting from a scene where a dead body is laid down and the other speaker who is already dead by drowning, is still complaining of not getting any response when he was alive. The reporter of the poem confesses that nobody in the society heard the voice of the dead man when he was alive. He might have asked for the help, for the warmth, for the love, but he did not get anything as a response. His dead body is still moaning about the coldness and the stiffness of the people in the society. He said he was drowning in the cold water, but people misunderstood it for the waving and he died of drowning. The crowd was now consoling stating that the dead man was always in a jolly mood, but he could not bear the coldness and he died. Suddenly the voice of the dead man appears again and clarifies the crowd that it was always cold for him throughout the life. He always lacked the warmth of love and affection from the society. He did not get any attention from the people when he was alive. He was neglected and his ‘larking’ was often misunderstood. The misunderstanding from the society was too cold for him that he always felt the desperation. His sugarcoated smile under which a bitter life experience was hidden, could not be understood by the people and no one showed interest to know him. He finally strongly states that he was not waving to the people, but was drowning and was asking for the help.

In this lyric, Smith explores two levels of drowning. In the surface, a person is drowning in the water and begging for help. No one responds to his cry for help. So the dead man complains that he was not waving but drowning. If he was waving he would need no help, but since he was drowning he was begging for help. In the absence of help he died and many people showed him the sympathy later on.

Using the analogy of drowned man the speaker mediates on his sufferings of life. This drowning is figurative especially when the speaker says he was drowning throughout the whole life and feeling cold always. Most probably race, color, class or poverty, deprived him from enjoying the warmth of life. Social demarcation made him suffer. He never experienced the pleasure of life. When he literally drowned, everybody saw that and showed him the deep sympathy. But in real life, he was drowning almost every day and he had always experienced a similar kind of cold throughout his life, but no one saw him drowning as well as sympathy was not duly given. Then the drowning stands for the sufferings of life.

The poem never clarifies the reasons behind his drowning. Race, class, gender, ethnicity may be some of the important reasons behind his drowning. Since the poem does not clarify that it is open ended in nature. Most importantly, this poem reveals the indifference, of the society towards the drowned man. When someone drowned, it just watches. So, the phrase "Nobody heard him" reflects that social indifference. The social indifference is bitterly satirized by the poet. No one cares a man when he is alive, but needs the human company, but after the death of the man, everyone comes to attend the funeral ceremony so as to show the fake grief. The poem implicitly wants the society to be warm and show the humanity when one is alive, not after death.

Related Topic

Stevie Smith: Biography