Stevie Smith’s Metaphor of “Not Waving But Drowning”
How is it possible to be surrounded by a million people yet feel so alone? In 1957, British poet Stevie Smith wrote a short poem, “Not Waving But Drowning,” composed of twelve lines broken up into three stanzas. The literal words of the poem leave the reader with the image of a distressed man, thrashing around in the sea as onlookers lying around on the beach watch but do not help, as they believe the frantic man is fooling around and waving to them. Conversely, however, Smith’s poem depicts a much deeper metaphoric meaning of depression, a man’s inner struggle with the ongoing daily pressures of life, and his desperate unanswered cry for help resulting in an ironic kind of living death.
The beginning lines of the first stanza, “nobody heard him, the dead man, but still he lay moaning” are contradictory, if taken literally, in that it describes a dead man making noise. However, the man is not literally dead. In reality, he feels lifeless inside, silently screaming for help but unable to form the words for his friends and family to know something is extremely wrong. He is not actually physically fading, but dying emotionally, intellectually and spiritually inside. The ending two lines of the first stanza, “I was much further out than you thought and not waving but drowning” illustrates the man’s urgent need to be noticed and helped in this desperate time of need. Onlookers may have misinterpreted the pleas for help, did not grasp how long he has needed help, or maybe just refuse to get involved. His sadness is more profound than anyone could fathom with feelings of isolation as he detaches himself from the world around him and fades deep within himself. The reader feels a sense of pain, desperation, and panic from witnessing the drowning of a soul which draws one deeper into the poem.
The second stanza, written in third person, “poor chap, he always loved larking and now he’s dead” is spoken from the...
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