‘Not Waving But Drowning’ by Stevie Smith is a three-stanza poem that follows a rhyme scheme that slightly deviates as the poem progresses. In the first stanza the lines rhyme, abcb, the second, defe, and the third, gbhb. The ‘b’ line words are all unified by a “-ing” end rhyme. This is not the only way in which they are related though, Smith has chosen to use the same exact end words, in the same order, in these lines. The second line of both stanzas ends with “moaning,” and the fourth with, “drowning.”
The choice to rhyme every other line in ‘‘Not Waving But Drowning’ lifts up the very dark tone of the poem to something that is slightly more lighthearted. The rhymes allow the reader the enjoy the reading of the poem, without being too distressed by the dark subject matter. On the other hand, the contrast between the rhyme scheme and the discussion of death and unintentional neglect only draws more attention to the most somber elements of this piece.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there is a dead man who is not really dead. He is not dead in that his story has more to offer to the world. His death came at the hands of apathy and neglect. The speaker knows this to be true as she is struggling out in the ocean waters and no one realizes. She is trying frantically to get someone’s attention but all the onlookers believe her to be “waving” rather than “drowning.”
In the second stanza the speaker critiques the emotionless reactions of the beachgoers and acquaintances she’s met in her life by describing their words regarding the dead man. They see him, attempt to recall something about his life, and then declare him dead without further ceremony. They believe that it must have been “too cold” for him and that his heart gave out.
The speaker continues on to tell her listeners that it has always been “too cold” for her. She has always been too far out to sea to make people understand her, especially now when she needs understanding the most.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Not Waving But Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,(…)And not waving but drowning.
The speaker begins this piece with a line that is meant to hook a reader, and convince them to continue on through the short stanzas. Smith writes, “Nobody heard him, the dead man.” This is a phrase, when read literally, seems obvious. Of course, a reader might think, one is unable to hear a dead person. But in the case of this poem, there are other factors at work.
The muteness of the person is not what is really at stake. The poet continues on, and throughout the following stanzas, a reader will be presented with a critique of the listener and observer. It is the beachgoers and watchers of a scene who are at fault.
The second line works similarly to the first. It is equally as shocking— especially when read after the first. A reader will hold two lines of thought at this point, one, is this person dead? And if not, why did the speaker say he was dead? It is revealed that the dead man is “still…moaning.” Although he is dead, in a location the speaker is yet to reveal, he is still making sounds. It is his death itself that is speaking. The loss of life has something to say on the man’s behalf, and the onlookers are not listening.
In the third and fourth lines it becomes clear that while the speaker is not a direct participant in this scene, she is in the vicinity and has access to the “dead man” through the line of sight or omniscient understanding. The speaker is suffering in a way she feels the dead man, who is perhaps on the beach, did as well.
She is in the ocean and is on the verge of drowning. She is attempting to flag down the people on the beach but they either do not see her or interpret her frantic movements for “waving” rather than “drowning.”
In these last two lines, the speaker moves into the first person, referring to herself as “I.” She also addresses, “you.” This could refer to a single person, or more likely, a collective body of people who are unable to see her and understand the destress she is in.
Poor chap, he always loved larking(…)They said.
The second stanza continues the narrative of the woman in the sea and the man who has already died and washed up on the beach.
This stanza is told from the perspective of the onlookers, but relayed from the speaker’s perspective. She is able to hear their words and relays them back in a way that shows an underlying apathy and distaste for the dead. The people on the beach do not do much more than pity the dead man.
They call him, “Poor chap,” and are able to remember a very general fact about him, that he “always loved larking,” or simply having a good time. This is something that could be said about almost everyone. Their words show no understanding or true sadness.
They state flatly that the man is “now…dead,” and that his death must have occurred because the water was “too cold for him.” They believe or at least express the belief, that he must have had a heart attack. They look no deeper into his life or death than what their first guesses give them. The speaker is criticizing them for this, she believes there is much more to this person than they are seeing. This is due to the fact that she is about to suffer a similar ending. She can see herself in his place.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always(…)And not waving but drowning.
In the final four lines of the poem, the speaker’s emotions begin to come through. She is reenacting what she believes the dead man must have been thinking as he died, and in turn, what she is thinking now.
The speaker is fretting over the situation that she is in, and wishing that somehow she had managed to find a way to make those around her understand what she is/was going through. She states that not only is the water, or this day, too cold, but it “was too cold always.” Her life, her emotions, the reactions she got from her family, friends, and peers— all of it was too cold.
Although she is suffering deeply out in the water, the dead man is still “moaning” on the beach. His death, which is representing the death and final climax of neglect, is hovering in the background, ready to take the drowning speaker.
In the last line, the speaker repeats the phrase which was used to end the first stanza and became the title of the poem. She is not living a life she enjoys any more than she is happily swimming in the ocean, she is “not waving but drowning.”