‘Not waving but drowning’ – Stevie Smith -Analysis

Not waving but drowning

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.

Stevie Smith (1902 – 1971)
(Florence Margaret “Stevie” Smith)

Stevie Smith did suffer a bit from depression and at one stage she tried to commit suicide. To what extent she endured life and put on a good face for others is not known. But I think this poem does reflect something of her nature. This poem is all about pretence, and isn’t it a more common human trait for people to try to give positive response even if it is only skin deep. I like the explanatory words of the dead man talking, explaining to everyone but only after he has died.The dead always speak louder than the living because they have more time on their hands.

The ‘comfort zone’ is never a permanent state and we are often encouraged by others in life to move to the ‘uncomfortable’ in order to develop. Well, it is all about balance of course. The poor dead man tells us it was ‘cold’ always. Clearly he should have been more honest and let someone know he was living in hell or should I say kicking frantically in order to stay afloat. Apparently  this fellow also enjoyed larking about so beware of those that play games because they may be hiding a sinking underside.

This poem was number four in popularity by respondents in the BBC Poetry rankings of 1996 so clearly readers could identify with the words. And for those reading this and are out of their depth at the moment make sure you can easily swim to safety whenever you need to!

Death was a key theme in the poetry of Stevie Smith. She regarded death as a welcome friend someone who would be with her to the end, and of course at the end. I know we are all drowning poetically but I do hope we are all enjoying being in the water too! And I guess those that have learnt to swim enjoy it more!

For those interested in the life of Stevie Smith there is a marvellous autobiographical movie made in 1978 called ‘Stevie’. She lived most of her life with an aunt. Stevie is played by Glenda Jackson and her aunt by Mona Washbourne. I found the interplay between these two outstanding actors quite captivating. And the movie includes the reading of many of her poems.

She was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. Here is a link to Stevie Smith on Wikipedia.

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