Paper on “Not Waving but Drowning” Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” is a short poem consisting of only twelve lines; however, understanding it is not as easy as it looks because it contains so many factors that make the poem very ambiguous. Smith employs two contradictory tones ironically in the same poem to represent the internal conflict that the speaker is suffering. The poem’s central metaphor of calling out for help while drowning but being misunderstood as waving indicates that this conflict stems from the miscommunication between the speaker and the society.
In public, the speaker fakes a bright and lively personality even though inside, he is feeling isolated and lonely. Smith accentuates the importance of personal and sincere interactions between people by demonstrating the consequences that the speaker has to suffer when he lacks them. When the poem is first read, Smith’s tone creates a comic mood that seems to be completely opposite of the main theme. The text depicts a man who is misunderstood by others, as they think that he is waving his arms to say hello when he is in fact, signaling for help while drowning.
Because misinterpretation in our body language has been a common source of jokes for a long time, the title of the poem inevitably carries a somewhat comical connotation. In addition, the contrast between the two meanings, saying hello and asking for help while drowning, of the speaker’s action is so big that it seems even unrealistic, therefore less serious. The usage of colloquial language such as “poor chap” (5) and “Oh, no no no,” (9) adds to the effect by giving the impression that the whole poem is a casual anecdote with jokes between friends.
Nevertheless, a reader would find the speaker more segregated from the others as the more subtle factors that affect the tone become clearer when the poem is reread. Beginning the poem in a third person perspective, the speaker creates some distance between himself and the dead man, even though later it becomes clear that the two are the same. He expresses no emotions regarding his death, whether it is literal or metaphorical, but merely states the fact as if it has no connections to him.
Moreover, the speaker uses words that describe distance such as “far”(11) and “further”(3) that in this poem, perhaps referring to his relationships to the society. Even the first impression of the poem, the comical tone, now signifies the lightness meaninglessness of these connections without sincerity. This contrast between the two tones indicates how the speaker feels as if he is separated both physically and mentally from his surroundings like the society, his friends or even his family.
These two seemingly opposite tones and moods existing in one poem simultaneously resemble the ambiguity in the speaker that he reveals when he describes his condition very ambiguously. For instance, in the first line, he portrays himself as a “dead man”(1), but in the line immediately after, the dead man is moaning, which is biologically impossible. The unclear subject raises the issue of who the speaker is, if he should not be able to comment on himself because he is already dead.
When the speaker uses the same pronouns, “he” and “him” from both the first person and the third person perspectives to refer to himself, this becomes even more puzzling; the readers are no longer sure of who the speaker is and who the subject of the poem is. One possible cause of these uncertainties is the discrepancy between the speaker’s real self and his public self; one that resembles who he really is and one that he shows to other people.
In front of others, he acted as a cheerful person who “always loved larking”(5); however, the speaker was feeling segregated and ignored by the people around him because they failed to recognize his true personality. The repetition of the words “still” and “always” in the poem shows that this phenomenon has been happening for a long time. Consequently, the speaker had to hide his real personality deeper and deeper in order to make his public self more natural and this led to what he calls the “death” of his true self and only the empty shell lives to listen to his real but fallen personality moaning.
Smith also establishes a close connection between the speaker’s dualism, and his social isolation although it is unclear which one is the cause and which one is the effect. Including the title, the expression “not waving but drowning” appears three times in this short 12-line poem, emphasizing the miscommunication; the speaker waves his arms to alert other people of his fragile state, but ironically they understand it as a sign of happiness and well-being. Furthermore, they assume that something must have changed or happened to make him cold enough to affect his heart.
But this is immediately denied by the speaker that claims he “was too cold always”(9); this misunderstanding has been occurring for a long time. In addition, the poem rhymes in every other line, suggesting even though it first seems to have no rule, there is a big pattern that combine these irregularities like waves that come regularly but in different forms; similarly, the speaker maybe had to fake a personality on a regular basis but in different occasions. In addition to the misunderstanding, the people around him remain as bystanders and make no attempts to help him.
The speaker describes himself to be drowning which is a very painful way to die; however, there is no help of any kind in the poem and the speaker lies “moaning” (10) in pain and loneliness without anyone noticing. In addition, the pun on the word, “still”(2), which the speaker uses to describe the dead man, functions in a similar way. Because a dead man who is lying still with no movement cannot describe himself, this indicates the two personalities in the speaker once more.
But more importantly, the word also refers to the unchanging state of the dead man, stressing the segregation between him and the people around him. The second stanza of the poem, which is written from the bystanders’ point of view, clarifies this further as it is placed in between the two stanzas that are in the speaker’s perspectives. The short appearance of the others’ view signifies the light relationship between them and the speaker. Moreover, Smith inserts the shortest line of the poem, “They said. (8), at the end of this paragraph, emphasizing the lack of attention given to him from the people around him. The expression, “giving way” has a notion of doing an action voluntarily, suggesting a possibility of a suicide when combined with the repeated theme of death. The alienation between the two different personas and the lack of help offered from others cornered the speaker to extreme solutions. Smith blames the society majorly for this tragedy even though it is hard to determine if it is actually the society’s fault or his personal judgment.
Smith expresses this point in the second stanza by offering the view from the people around the speaker who thought it “must have been too cold for him (to) his heart gave way” (7). The tense “must have” signifies that this is an assumption based on their past experience with the speaker’s public character, implying the lack of attention toward the speaker; the society makes no attempt to understand the underlying causes of his drowning. Moreover, when the speaker’s “heart gave way,” Smith employs the image of the speaker’s dying ego that was sacrificed when he created the public personality.
This could also mean that the speaker has lost his energy and passion to cope with the society. The writer emphasizes the hardship by describing that the speaker has been “too cold always” (9) as he is emotionally isolated from everyone else with no one to support him during his struggle. Despite the speaker’s desperate attempt of creating a more friendly personality to form an intimate relationship with the society, the society remains as a bystander. Written in comic tone on the surface but masking a more gloomy tone, Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” is an ambiguous poem.
The speaker is continuously misunderstood by the people around him, eliminating the chance to form true and intimate relationships with them. As a result, even though he may seem happy and cheerful on the outside, he is practically alone and has no one to save him from the loneliness. If the speaker has reacted more sincerely to the society by revealing his real feelings, he could have prevented this tragedy. However, in the poem, Smith seems to be advocating the speaker that represents individual members of the society by writing it in the speaker’s point of view to describe the emotional adversity he goes through more vividly.