Not Waving but Drowning Analysis

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Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” is a short poem consisting of only twelve lines; however, understanding it is not as easy as it looks because it contains so many factors that make the poem very ambiguous. Smith employs two contradictory tones ironically in the same poem to represent the internal conflict that the speaker is suffering. The poem’s central metaphor of calling out for help while drowning but being misunderstood as waving indicates that this conflict stems from the miscommunication between the speaker and the society. In public, the speaker fakes a bright and lively personality even though inside, he is feeling isolated and lonely. Smith accentuates the importance of personal and sincere interactions between people by demonstrating the consequences that the speaker has to suffer when he lacks them.

When the poem is first read, Smith’s tone creates a comic mood that seems to be completely opposite of the main theme. The text depicts a man who is misunderstood by others, as they think that he is waving his arms to say hello when he is in fact, signaling for help while drowning. Because misinterpretation in our body language has been a common source of jokes for a long time, the title of the poem inevitably carries a somewhat comical connotation. In addition, the contrast between the two meanings, saying hello and asking for help while drowning, of the speaker’s action is so big that it seems even unrealistic, therefore less serious. The usage of colloquial language such as “poor chap” (5) and “Oh, no no no,” (9) adds to the effect by giving the impression that the whole poem is a casual anecdote with jokes between friends.

Nevertheless, a reader would find the speaker more segregated from the others as the more subtle factors that affect the tone become clearer when the poem is reread. Beginning the poem in a third person perspective, the speaker creates some distance between himself and the dead...
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