Not Waving but Drowning

Not Waving but Drowning

by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Summary of Not Waving but Drowning

  • Popularity of “Not Waving but Drowning”: Stevie Smith, a great English poet, and novelist wrote ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. It is a famous narrative poem about a dead man recalling the reason for losing his life. It was first published in 1957. The poem presents an account of a drowning man whose gesture for help was perhaps mistaken for waving. It provides society’s absolute indifferent stance toward victims.
  • “Not Waving but Drowning” as criticism on the Society: The poem exhibits two things, a haunting glimpse of a drowning man and society’s cold response toward such incidents. The poem is written from the perspective of a dead man who is moaning after his death while giving a clue to his miserable plight. When he was drowning, no one could decipher his call for help. Rather, people mistook his drowning gesture as waving. On the surface, the poem only presents the picture of a drowning man whose call for help was not answered. As we understand the poem in depth, it presents the dilemma of the dead man’s sufferings and the people around him who did not notice problems.
  • Major Themes in “Not Waving but Drowning”: Death, misunderstanding, and loneliness are the major themes of the poem. The poem explains the grief of a man who died because no one heard his pleas for help. Instead, they misinterpret it as a friendly gesture. The poem presents a satire of the society stating that a person is not valued when alive. But, after his death, many come with fake grief.

Analysis of Literary Devices in “Not Waving but Drowning”

 Literary devices serve as tools the writers use to enrich their poetic or literary pieces. Stevie has also given this poem depth and clarity with the appropriate use of these literary devices. The analysis of some of the devices used in this poem is given below.

  1. Symbolism: Symbolism is using symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings different from literal meanings. “Drowning” is the symbol for someone in need and ‘much too far all my life’ symbolizes when someone is unable to handle something in life.
  2. Imagery: Imagery pertains to five senses, Stevie has used visual and auditory imagery in this poem such as, “But still he lay moaning”, “And not waving but drowning” and “I was much further out than you” are the images appeal to the sense of sight. Similarly, “moaning” appeals to the sense of hearing as no one hears to the drowning man.
  3. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /ng/ in “And not waving but drowning” and the sound of /d/ in “Nobody heard him, the dead man.”
  4. Irony: It is used in the first stanza, “And not waving but drowning.” It is ironic that the person is drowning and his friends assume that he is waving and having a good time.
  5. Metaphor: There is only one metaphor used in the first stanza. In verse, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’, drowning metaphorically presents the dead man’s troubles and depression which nobody understood.
  6. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /l/ in “Poor chap, he always loved larking”.
  7. Hyperbole: Hyperbole is a device used to exaggerate a statement for the sake of emphasis. For example,I was much too far out all my life”. This line exaggerates the speaker’s call for help even after his death.
  8. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought or clause that does not come to an end at a line break. Instead, it moves over the next line. For example,

“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”

Analysis of Poetic Devices in “Not Waving but Drowning”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are three stanzas in this poem; each stanza consists of four lines.
  2. Quatrain: Quatrain is a four-lined stanza borrowed from Persian poetry. Here, each stanza is quatrain.
  3. Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme followed by the entire poem is ABCB.
  4. Repetition: There is a repetition of the line, “And not waving but drowning” which has been used to emphasize the speaker’s pain as he lost his life while his friends watched.
  5. Refrain: The lines that are repeated at some distance in the poems are called refrain. The line, “And not waving but drowning” is repeated with the same words, it has become a refrain as it has been repeated in the first and last stanzas of the poem.

Quotes to be Used

 The lines stated below can be used when narrating any personal experience of seeing a drowning man. These could also be used to tell the miserable plight of a person who left this world in despair.

“Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.”