‘Not Waving But Drowning’ by Stevie Smith is a dark poem as you will notice in this analysis below, but with an uplifting message: We can all help each other through suffering and make a real difference in the world through empathy and support.
I’ve written an analysis that’s tailored towards GCSE / IGCSE students (CIE / Cambridge, AQA, OCR, Edexcel, WJEC / Eduqas, CCEA, etc) but feel free to use my notes if you’re studying the poem at a higher level! My university lecturer absolutely loved Stevie Smith and has written books on her, so hopefully, I’ve done him proud with this one!
If you find my analysis useful, you can take a look at the full CIE IGCSE poetry course and other English resources.
NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING – STEVIE SMITH
Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright, but here’s a link to full poem.
Poor chap — an old fashioned expression that means ‘poor man’, the speaker feels sorry for him.
Larking — a verb which means ‘messing around’ or playing/enjoying yourself and not taking things too seriously.
This is a narrative poem that tells the story of a man who drowned; he was signaling to people that he needed help but they mistook his behaviour for waving, and so did nothing. The man had a reputation for ‘larking’, messing around, so he wasn’t taken seriously. The final stanza is a little more difficult, the speaker tells us that ‘it was too cold always’, suggesting that the man always struggled with life, and furthermore that she too feels she is similar to this man, that she is drowning but it may be interpreted as waving because she is ‘much too far out’ for people to understand how she truly feels.
The speaker is a third-person narrator of the man’s tragic ending, although in the first and final stanza the poem shifts to first-person and becomes about herself, as she draws parallels between this man and her own situation. The narrator has a sympathetic tone towards the man, repeating the phrase ‘poor chap’ to show how sorry she felt for him and to demonstrate that she can empathise.
Humour can sometimes be used as a cover-up or coping mechanism for depression — the man has a reputation for ‘larking’, he is perhaps similar to a class clown figure in the school, the kind of person who is always making others laugh and creating a good time for people to enjoy. We would not necessarily expect this kind of person to suffer from depression, but in reality, extroverted people who enjoy creating fun for others can sometimes feel very low themselves, and this low mood can be a justification or motivation for their excitable behaviour.
Depression feels like you are ‘far away’ from society and other people, it is difficult to connect when you’re in that state of mind — Both the speaker and the man are misinterpreted because they are ‘far away’, this could relate to a few different ideas — firstly, the physical isolation that those with depression may experience (as being in that state of mind sometimes leads to lack of social contact / wanting to socialise with others); secondly it may be that they are unable to let people in and being honest with them deeper or more difficult feelings — if they have lots of friends but are unable to discuss problems and darker moods with them, it could create a similar feeling of isolation; and finally a sense of psychological isolation — that they are perhaps on a different ‘wavelength’ from others and unable to experience the world in the same way due to their depressed mood.
Death can come suddenly and unexpectedly — one tragic thing about the poem is the idea that even if it does relate to suicide, the man is not fully committing to the idea of death as he is ‘waving’ — signaling to people to help him. He is not ready to die, and yet he does, because he is misinterpreted by others. Though this is quite a bleak interpretation, we can learn from the poem that we should create a positive and supportive environment and look out for one another, so there are positive messages or outcomes of the poem as well as a tragic ending for the man.
We should all care for and support each other through difficult times — as above, Smith creates a sense of social duty or responsibility in the poem, asking us to think deeper about our relationships and friendships and be prepared to help our friends through difficult times if needed.
The reality of a situation can be different from how we expect it to be — there is a huge discrepancy between the appearance of the situation — a man swimming in the sea or lake, seemingly having a fun time — and the reality — a man drowning and signaling frantically for help. This double perspective encourages us to understand that not everything is how it seems and to again check up on those around us to make sure they are really ok, even if they seem fine.
Pitiful / Sorrowful tone — though the poem has some almost humourous and comic elements (such as the absurdity of someone drowning looking like they’re waving), there is overall a pitiful tone towards the subject (the death of the man), we feel as if the speaker thinks it is a waste and that his death could have been prevented.
Repetition — there are several images or motifs that are repeated, the most prominent being — ‘still he lay moaning’ / ‘(Still the dead one lay moaning)’, a haunting image that shows us the psychological and physical suffering of the man. He is unnamed and referred to as ‘the dead one’ in the final stanza, making him more of a symbol for those with depression and mental health issues, rather than a named character. This may be why he is still ‘moaning’ after death because he represents all people like him who are suffering alone and need more help and support.
A further motif is an image of ‘not waving but drowning’, repeated in the title and throughout the poem as the final line in the first and last stanza. This creates a circularity to the poem as if it keeps coming back to this same image — the moment where the man asked for help and wasn’t given assistance, as if this is a crucial moment that could have made a difference if people had paid attention to his cries for help.
Continuous verbs — there is a juxtaposition of continuous verbs that represent constant movement in life to the absoluteness and finality of death: ‘moaning’ / ‘waving’ / ‘drowning’ / ‘larking’.
Third-person pronoun — ‘they’ is used in a way that demonstrates the distance between the people who knew the man and the man himself.
Metaphor — ‘it must have been too cold for him his heart gave way’ / ‘no no no, it was too cold always’ — this difference between ‘their’ perspective and the perspective of the man and speaker is emphasised via the metaphor ‘too cold’, the people who could have helped the man thought that he drowned because the water at that moment was too cold for the man to stand, but Smith tries to get us to understand that the man was suffering always, that he was essential ‘too cold’, feeling discomfort and pain, in a psychological sense and that was the real reason for the death/suicide. It feels as though Smith understands the man far more than those around him did, she can empathise as she experienced similar feelings (see the context for more info).
Three four-line stanzas (quatrains) — in a sense, the poet is split evenly into three quatrains, although within those the line length is irregular — perhaps this is to evoke the waves in the water that surrounds the man, which is in itself a metaphor for the ups and downs we experience in life.
Epizeuxis — the exclamation ‘no no no’ is very emphatic, expressing the speaker’s strong emotional feelings towards the plight of the man — perhaps she feels that the real tragedy is not the man’s death in itself, but the fact that his life was so difficult as he was unable to connect fully with others and get people to understand his inner feelings.
Circular structure — the poem roughly repeats the lines: ‘I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning.’/ ‘I was much too far out all my life. / And not waving but drowning.’. Perhaps the death of the man has acted as a kind of wake-up call for the speaker, as she sees his suffering resulted in suicide and is worried that her own life might end the same way.
Assonance — there isn’t a full rhyme scheme, but certain words connect via sound — ‘waving’ / ‘drowning’ sound very similar, for example, so it’s easy to see even through the sound as well as the visual image of these how they could get confused.
First published in 1957.
Stevie Smith had a difficult start to her life, her father ran away to sea when his business failed, and later her mother became ill so she was partially raised by her aunt — she also spent a few years in a sanatorium (health/recovery clinic) from the age of five. Her aunt was a feminist, and she was raised in an all-female household along with her sister.
Due to her difficult upbringing, she received psychological treatment for mental health issues (including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts) — her poems often explore the darker aspects of life, such as coming to terms with death and fear.
Smith was raised as an Anglican (Protestant Christian) and moved between religion and atheism throughout her life — unable to fully commit to belief or non-belief in a God (you can call her an agnostic).
Smith often made drawings to accompany her poems; this particular poem was accompanied by a picture of a girl with hair hanging over her face.
- Life and Death
- Perception vs Reality
- Friendship / Relationships
Thanks for reading! If you found my analysis useful, you can take a look at the full CIE IGCSE poetry course and other English resources.
Be sure to check our other poem analysis by clicking here.