Not Waving but Drowning Essay Example
Not Waving but Drowning Essay Example

Not Waving but Drowning Essay Example

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The poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, by Stevie Smith, is a poem in which there is a drowning man at sea. In this poem, the poet is talking about the difficulty of communication and the fundamental isolation of the individual in modern society. The title of the poem gives us an immediate indication that the poem will tackle a serious matter. The poem contains three voices; the drowning man, the observers and the people on the beach. It can be interpreted on both a literal and metaphorical level of meaning. Stevie Smith (Florence Margaret) was born in Hull, Yorkshire. She was both a novelist and poet.

Smith was born in 1902 and died in 1971 at the age of 41 years. Many of her poems are accompanied by her own doodles which


illustrate her writing. She takes serious issues and cloaks them in humour, getting her point across in an inventive and clever way. She wrote in a variety of styles, ranging from ballad- like poetry to using the stream of consciousness technique. The poem is made up of three stanzas which consist of four lines each. In the entire poem, there is a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB in all of the three stanzas. The lines in the poem are all of irregular length.

The first and the third stanzas are similar because in each of these stanzas both the drowning man and the persona can be heard speaking. In fact, the third and fourth lines in both stanzas are very similar in structure. The lines spoken by the persona in the third stanza is enclosed within brackets as if

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the persona is interrupting the drowning man’s speech. The second stanza contains the voice of the crowd with the exception of ‘They said’, which belongs to the persona. In the first stanza, the drowning man is not identified by name that remains an anonymous figure.

This shows us that everybody is in danger of feeling isolated and misunderstood and could also emphasise the difference between the drowning man and those around him. The phrase, ‘Nobody heard him’, shows lack of communication and that the man was misunderstood by the poet and those around him. In the first line he is described as the dead man and we might ask ourselves whether he has always failed to exist for those around him. The word ‘moaning’, can indicate that the man is still crying out for help and that throughout his life, his cries for help have gone unheard.

The people on the beach are not aware that he is actually drowning, just as nobody seemed to be aware of or interested in his problems. The words ‘I was much further out than you thought’, demonstrate the distance both physical but especially psychological between himself and the rest of the world. The line ‘And not waving but drowning’, underlines the difficulties that other people might be going through. In the second stanza, the people often on the beach do not seem to show any genuine feeling or sorrow. By stating that the drowned man always loved larking, they reveal that they did not know him at all.

We are left with the image of a man desperately putting on a happy front to gain

the attention and appreciation of others, but constantly being misinterpreted and misunderstood. Maybe, he simply felt too ashamed to admit to his problems when everyone around him seemed to be coping perfectly. The observers are almost flippant in their attitude to the drowning man. The punctuation in this stanza also points this out. The enjambment in the first and second lines give ‘larking’ and ‘dead’ the same emphasis and therefore the same importance.

This simply helps to underline how isolated this man was, as these two words indicate a complete opposite state of mind. The pause after ‘gave way’, followed by the last line ‘They said’, indicates that other interpretations are possible which really reflects what happened: that the man found life as too lonely or difficult and gave up. The observers completely misinterpret the situation. The people on the beach are unable to discern the man’s moments of joy from his moments of despair. We can interpret the phrase ‘It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way ‘, in both a literal and figurative way.

Literally, the observers could be saying that the man has had a heart attack as a result of the cold temperature of the water; figuratively, we might say that this unknown man lacked the warmth of human relationships. His life was empty of love and warm feelings which has caused him to give up on life. The third and final stanza shows us how desperate the man’s situation has been, both past and present. The repetition of ‘no’ stresses this fact by underlining how he has always felt cold, unloved, unappreciated and misunderstood.

In fact he says ‘I was much too far out all my life’. The ater in which he drowns, symbolizes a barrier which separates him from the rest of society, such as his inability to make friends. It could also symbolize his life, a life in which he could not cope due to the various difficulties he was experiencing. The poem’s apparent simplicity concerns serious issues which preoccupied the poet, Stevie Smith. Her view of the modern world and the difficulties of communication and hardship of modern life are well portrayed in the poem. Smith’s use of the stream of consciousness technique demonstrates that things are not always what they seem.

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