“Not Waving But Drowning”; Stevie Smith: Analysis .
The poem: “Not Waving but Drowning”, is a short, modernist: exploration of the voice of a dying man: the Speaker who journeys through the verses in a symbolic river: evoking connotations of death: melancholy: isolation: and metamorphosis.
Hidden in the depths of the waves of lyrics: that roll on: to narrate its tale: lies a solemn moral at the heart of this poem; that of the ambiguity and reality of the heart; that seemed so joyous outwardly: but internally hid secrets of pain: of loneliness; of nothingness. Evidence for this can be found in the lines: “Poor chap, he always loved larking”; and “Oh…no, it was too cold always”. The contrast in the two moods and the emotive expressions is stark; painting a lament of the lost man’s torment. The lines are abrupt and immediate; the use of enjambment jumps out at the audience; and allows a smooth, almost un-empathic following of the story, with the man descending to death and doom. This can be seen in the short lines: “Nobody heard him, the dead man”, and “They said”.
It works to illustrate the poet’s intention to portray the insignificance of humans against the brute of nature; almost irrelevant in the scheme of nature; whose sea will be renewed to see another day. Examples of this can be found in the verses: “It must have been too cold for him”; and “I was much further out”. The almost cyclical structure to the poem reflects this empty moral; and the end of this man’s cycle of life. In a pathos-laden, closed use of speech in the final passage; Smith depicts the man almost singing; in the sad rhythms of the poem: ” (Still the dead one lay moaning)”; and “And not waving but drowning”. The tension built in earlier scenes is explicit and poignant; crafted words that reflect the man himself; and his last thoughts; in a musical and original ending.
The name is never revealed in the progression of the poem, invoking a message of: Who are we; and Who cares? The impersonal use of personal pronouns: “him”, “the dead man”; “he”, “Poor chap” and: “the dead one”: give an impression of life’s fragility, with the man forgotten with the wind, and the use of identification creating an almost uncaring atmosphere. The repeated use of the word; “I”, however, is an interesting maturation of the interpretations of the poem, so we are left to wonder if the first-person use is the same identifier; or if it is a different voice to the second-person narrative. Curiously, the “I” is enclosed in the penultimate line, expressing the poet’s desire to show the man’s final wish to be revealed; as a person, in the last lines. The repetition of the eponymous: “Not waving but drowning”, expands on the “too far out all my life”; linking the character’s personal thoughts with the poem’s theme: and expressing his peace with the suffering it brought. One could interpret the final lines; as a blues-style; modern impression of a struggling artist; as “he” plucks his final piece of language, and sinks into the sea.
We are left with the fable: that is this us – in the end: exposed, creatures as we really are: secret, dissatisfied: “drowning”, in the responsibility of life: and the emotions we must gift with a humorous bow as they rattle in the box, fiery, tragic; alone. It is very much an adult-themed poem: with infantile, almost fairy-tale tones, and connotations; about how we are all drowning in our own stories; and in the sudden structure of the composition: we feel there are few who will get to voice; their own accounts of the stillness that closes over the waves, as it hits the sea.