Analysis of Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith

Josh Robinson Dr. Joyce Huff ENG 206 Feb 5, 2013 Not Waving but Drowning People may not always be exactly what they seem on the outside just as a poem may have a deeper meaning than the story that is just on the surface. The poem Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith is a great example of this. The author does a very good job at relating the death of a man by drowning and the reaction it causes in others to the deeper story of how the man is symbolically calling out to others who never come to help him get his life together.
In the beginning of the poem, the first two lines are somewhat confusing. It refers to the main character as “the dead man” but then in the next line it mentions how he is moaning. This is confusing of course because as we all know, a dead man can’t make sounds. The next sentence though, seems more straightforward at first glance but as you move farther in the poem it’s meaning might not be so obvious. In the second stanza there is a change from what seems to be the dead man speaking to others talking about what he was like when he was alive.
It shows how, to other people, the man seemed happy, but it also seems as though the author means to give the impression that other people think that it was this one event that caused the man to finally break down. He says in the next stanza however that “…it was too cold always” which I think shows that he is saying that it was not merely one event that caused him to “drown”. His entire life consisted of reaching out to others for help but he never received it. In the beginning of the second stanza I would also like to point out how the author added “Poor chap” separated with a comma.

I think the commas are likely used to emphasize that label that the author puts on the man from the viewpoint of others. It, in a way, shows how others may pity this man because of how great he had it until this single event. This is ironic because if you read the poem more than once, you’ll see that in the last stanza he is essentially saying in the third line, “I was much too far out all my life”, that he was suffering not only in the his last moments but throughout his entire life.
If you look at the ways that the poem is written out, it kind of helps to separate the different clues that the author gives to you. In the very first line, it uses commas to separate “the dead man”. Even though it didn’t separate any of the other instances of the author referring to the man as “dead”, I think that it is written in this way so that you will realize that it might not mean dead in the literal sense of the word but in a more symbolic sense. As though to help that idea be emphasized each time that you come across that phrase.
Also, if you noticed, “And not waving but drowning” was used both at the end of the first stanza as well as the end of the last stanza. In the first stanza it is used merely as a way to get you to recognize the importance of it when it comes around again. It is placed here with the understanding that its true meaning may not be as clear until the next time that you see it. When you see it again though, you have enough information to where you can start coming to conclusions about what the author really meant to symbolize when he said that the man was drowning.
In the second stanza, “They said” is placed in a line on its own which is unusual compared to the rest of the poem. It seems as if it was put there separately to draw attention to the contrast between what others thought of this man and how he knew his life to be as well as showing the importance of both it and the line before it, which is also abnormal in the fact that it is quite a bit longer than the rest of the lines in the poem. There are many poems that say one thing but completely mean another.
Not everything is black and white in poetry just as in other art forms. Some may be more difficult than others to see a different meaning behind the text but through clever uses of words, imagery, and symbols just about any poem can be examined more closely for different meanings, thoughts, or ideas that the author is trying to convey. Poems should be broken down and examined in sections. Each section may have different clues as to what the author’s underlying meaning could be. This makes understanding the poem as a whole a lot easier.
I found it very helpful in this poem (and other poems), as we learned in class, to read into things more and question everything. There could be a simple object that creates a completely different meaning to the poem once you find out it’s significance. Also, finding multiple definitions or even definitions you might not know such as the word larking was very helpful. I didn’t quite know the meaning of that word, but in looking it up, I basically came up with my entire argument for what I thought the meaning of the poem was.
Figuring out a poem is almost like figuring out a puzzle. The only real difference is, the pieces aren’t cut out for you. You have to look at the bigger picture and find the logical pieces to cut out and then examine them individually. When you are done looking at them and figure out how to put them back together they could very well become a completely different picture from the one that you had originally broken down into pieces.

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