1. Nobody heard him, the dead man,
2. But still he lay moaning:
3. I was much further out than you thought
4. And not waving but drowning.
5. Poor chap, he always loved larking
6. And now he’s dead
7. It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
8. They said.
9. Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
10. (Still the dead one lay moaning)
11. I was much too far out all my life
Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” is not only about the literal drowning in water, but metaphoric drowning in life. Except for the use of words like “drowning,” “too cold,” and “too far out,” the poem doesn’t explain whether there really was any body of water involved in the dead man’s demise. This ambiguity provides three possible interpretations of the poem: first that a man has literally drowned, second that the poem is a metaphor and therefore the term “drowning,” is an abstract comparison, and third that the man has drowned in both the literal and metaphoric sense.
The poem itself is divided into three stanzas with four lines each. The first and third stanzas are similar in line length in meter, each ending in the title phrase of the poem “not waving but drowning.” The second stanza is different in line length, with two long-short sets of lines, the second and last lines rhyming.
The voices of the poem can be separated into two distinct groups: the Witnesses and the Drowned Man (whom I have distinguished by adding italics to his lines). Although these voices are characteristic personas, there also is a third, impartial Narrator voice (underlined), who only speaks in four lines of the entire poem, first to set the scene in lines one and two, and then in line eight when she relates what the Witnesses said of the Drowned Man and what the Drowned Man was doing.
The main character is a man referred to as dead, and yet his is “still moaning.” This may be an echo from his last minutes of life, or it may be a sort of out-of-body experience shortly after he died. Either way, it is clear that although the Witnesses to his drowning cannot see or hear him, he is trying to get them to understand the true nature of his death.
The Witnesses comprise a persona of two or more people commenting on the cause of the Drowned Man’s death. They are sympathetic, recalling that “he always loves larking,” but clearly they also misunderstood him. They speculate that “it must have been too cold for him” and that “his heard gave way,” but the Drowned Man responds that is “was too cold always.”
The Witnesses of the Drowned Man’s death try to explain his motives and feelings, but are barred from his thoughts, emotions, and psychological existence. They misinterpret his drowning as waving, his gesticulations for help as a salutation. The poem ends with the Drowned Man explaining that he was “much too far out” all his life, signifying that he had been drowning in an abstract sense much longer than anyone had suspected.
The statement “much too far out all my life” indicates that the act of “drowning,” no matter how literal, began as psychological, spiritual drowning long before the man drowned in physical water. The choice of the word “waving” as a metaphor represents his desperate, silent appeals to be rescues from his spiritual drowning. The Witnesses remember that he “always loved larking,” but the Drowned Man himself says that he was “much father out than you thought,” which suggests that his interaction with the Witnesses was a façade disguising a darker, less jovial nature.
Ever after death, the Drowned Man is frantic to set the record straight, to tell the truth about how he died. He cries, “Oh, no no no” in response to the causes of death given by the Witnesses. The detail of his repeating the line, “not waving but drowning” denotes a specific importance to that phrase, as if he wanted to emphasize this as the reason his life ended as it did. No matter how much he repeats these words, the Witnesses seem unable to listen or unaware that they should be listening.
“Not Waving but Drowning” illustrates how humans can be completely surrounded by other people but still be completely alone. The Drowned Man’s nonverbal cries for help go unnoticed by those who know them, and his is alienated from those he associates with in life. No matter whether he drowned physically in water or if he died in some other manner related to drowning, he was left unaided and desperate to be understood in both life and death.