A critical reading of a classic poem
‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is the best-known poem by Stevie Smith (1902-71). In 1995, it was voted Britain’s fourth favourite poem in a poll. First published in 1957, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ fuses the comic and the tragic, moving between childlike simplicity and darker, more cynical touches. You can read the poem here, but in this post we want to analyse Stevie Smith’s language in this poem, in an effort to get to grips with its meaning.
‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is divided into three stanzas, all of which are quatrains rhymed abcb (though the rhyme in the first and third stanzas, on moaning/drowning, is imperfect). A brief summary of the poem reveals that although it seems simple in meaning, it is anything but. The first stanza tells us that nobody heard the drowning man (his dying moans being retrospectively recounted: he is now ‘the dead man’), yet he continued to cry for help and wave his arms, his flailing mistaken for friendly waving. The first two lines are spoken by some impersonal narrator; the last two lines by the dead man himself. This is a voice from the dead: ‘I was much further out’, not ‘I am’. He is already a goner.
The second stanza is spoken by the impersonal narrator again – or is it? It’s hard to tell. The dead man’s words were not enclosed in helpful quotation marks in the first stanza, so there are no clear markers to tell us who is speaking. The voice in this second stanza (‘Poor chap…’) may be the narrator who began the poem, or it may be the voice of the crowd who witnessed the man’s death but failed to realise he was in trouble. The syntax cleverly suggests the simple and the childlike: ‘It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way’. Note the missing punctuation between ‘him’ and ‘his’: no colon or comma divides the first clause from the second. ‘They said’, reads the fourth line of this second stanza in its entirety. But when did ‘they’ take over? From the third line in this stanza? Or the first? Like the man’s death itself, the poem’s voices are awash with confusion.
The third and final stanza then gives a voice to the dead man again, who ‘still … lay moaning’: lying not in the sea now, but in his grave; not dying, but dead. When ‘the dead man’ moaned in the first stanza, the wording struck us as odd: he was clearly still alive (though done for) when he ‘lay moaning’ at the start of the poem, but the juxtaposition of ‘the dead man’ and the fact that he was ‘moaning’ made us do a double take: oh, he’s dead now, and he was moaning then. But in this final stanza, he is moaning from beyond the grave: he really is a ‘dead man … moaning’. The reworking of ‘I was much further out’ into ‘I was much too far out all my life’ tells us that this is a ghostly voice addressing us, and also broadens out the physical drowning into something more symbolic: cries for help are often mistaken for laughs of good humour; ‘hysteria’, as T. S. Eliot said, might ‘easily be misunderstood’.
‘Not Waving but Drowning’, like many of Stevie Smith’s poems, sounds light and comical, singsonglike and sprightly, yet hides a darker meaning. Any analysis of ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ must acknowledge this, but must also take into account the curious anomalies in punctuation and wording which create this unnerving effect.
Image: Blue plaque commemorating Stevie Smith at 1 Avondale Road, Enfield, N15 (author: Spudgun67), Wikimedia Commons.