Not Waving but Drowning
Not Waving but Drowning
Stevie Smith 1957
“Not Waving but Drowning” is the title poem of Stevie Smith’s 1957 collection of poetry. Written in the later part of Smith’s career, the poem was cited by many critics as exemplifying in a single piece many of Smith’s most notable poetic traits: reoccurring images of water and death; radical shifts in the speaker’s tone and persona; and a voice that speaks as if reciting a carefree nursery rhyme, but is one that details grave news. The poem is a haunting glimpse at a swimmer’s unfortunate death by drowning, the details of which are relayed by both the dead man’s friends and the dead man himself. The poem is set up as a conversation between the “dead one [who] lay moaning” and his friends, who can only guess “It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way.” We learn through this dialogue that the man died because he was “farther out than [he] thought” and the friends on shore could not decipher his waving as panic nor hear him yelling for help.
This poem is a significant barometer for Smith’s emotional state at age 55, as she approached the later part of her career and enjoyed increasing success. She often described death as a friend we should welcome: “the only god / Who comes a servant when he is called.” She uses this analogy—which considers death something we can control—as a comforting thought in other poems from the collection. Even though the drowned man’s friends try to guess the reasons for his death, it is ultimately the dead man himself who demonstrates his control by revealing that this accident was not a sudden death, but instead the end of a life of agony, during which he felt “too cold always” and “much too far out all my life.” We can only guess that during this period of her writing, Smith felt the same sense of isolation, distance, and transparency as the drowned man. She attempted suicide two months after its publication.
Characterized by her dry wit and elusive style, Stevie Smith’s poetry was just reaching the apex of recognition in the literary world when she died at the age of sixty-eight in March of 1971. Early in her career, Smith struggled with critics who dismissed her work as childish or frivolous. The first publisher she approached with a manuscript of poems suggested she write a novel instead. Later, when her first poetry collection A Good Time Was Had By All appeared in 1937, the Times Literary Supplement classified it under the heading “humor.” Throughout her career Smith tackled difficult subjects, often crafting themes of abandonment, death, and social isolation in deceptively simple, nursery rhyme-like lines. By the end of her career, it was this ability to explore the mysterious, dark and everyday world in an equally elusive and fractured voice which critics heralded as her unique style.
Although her work is marked by often by change—be it in point of view, personae, or tone—Smith led a surprisingly consistent and uneventful life compared to her contemporaries. Born in Hull, Yorkshire, England in 1902, Florence Margaret Smith was the product of a less than happy, “unsuitable” marriage. Her mother moved the family to Palmers Green in North London in 1906 to the house where she would live, unmarried, for the remainder of her life. Growing up, Smith rarely saw her father, who abandoned the family shortly after her birth to join the North Sea Patrol. She earned her nickname “Stevie” from a friend who jokingly compared Smith, who was an avid rider, to the popular jockey Steve Donoghue.
Smith’s professional career turned out to be as unchanging as her personal life in the Palmers Green home. She secured a secretarial position with magazine publisher George Newnes shortly after graduating from the North London Collegiate School for Girls, and eventually was promoted to personal secretary under Sir Nevill Pearson and Sir Frank Newnes. She didn’t leave that job until 1953, even as her writing career slowly began to materialize; instead she was known to use office time to type out her manuscripts on yellow carbon-copy paper. She completed her first book, the autobiographical A Novel on Yellow Paper this way, and it was published in 1936. Her first collection of poetry, A Good Time Was Had by All, appeared the next year with the support of the publisher Jonathon Cape, who was perhaps the first to recognize Smith’s importance in the literary community.
Smith quickly followed up her first two books with a dual release of the novel Over the Frontier and collection of poems Tender Only to One in the same year, 1938. In this second volume of poetry, Smith established her characteristic self-illustrations, simple line drawings of people and animals which often seemed to challenge any simple interpretation of the poems with which they share space. She also settled into a style which would characterize her writing for the rest of her career: a minimalist approach to line, an innovative mix and match of formalism with fairy-tale simplicity, shifting personas, and an overall use of humorous verse to resonate even the most soul-shaking themes.
Perhaps best illustrating this style is the title poem of her eighth book, Not Waving but Drowning, published in 1957. Marking the beginning of her belated climb toward success, the poem hauntingly reflects how even the most desperate gestures can be misunderstood if people keep enough distance between themselves. In this book Smith further developed themes which obsessed her since her abandoned childhood: water, death, and human isolation. Looking back on her own body of work, Smith told interviewer Kay Dick in 1970 that “nearly every poem’s about suicide, more or less.” Perhaps an overstatement, she did wrestle with this subject throughout her career, at least once attempting to end her own life. She often described death as an attractive notion, personifying it in her final poem “Come, Death II” as “the only god / Who comes as a servant when he is called, you know.”
After an often sickly childhood and rather uneventful personal life (not to diminish her vibrant and ground-breaking literary life), Smith finally received official recognition for her work with the receipt of the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry in 1966 and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. This formal recognition came just a few years before the end of her long and prolific career spanning twelve books. Her health quickly deteriorating due to a brain tumor, Stevie Smith died in 1971, in the same house she had lived in since 1906.
Passion for Smith’s work grew quickly following her death, marked by the posthumous publication of her final volume of poems in 1972, multiple collected volumes of poetry, and innumerable anthology inclusions. In the years following her death, critical focus of her work has continued to find life and playfulness in her well-crafted, deceivingly simple lines. Smith once called her poems “sound vehicles,” a description of her orally-driven pieces the Times Literary Supplement shared, calling Smith “one of the most musical poets of her generation.”
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The poem begins in mid-conversation and action, with the scene being that of a dead man lying on the ground. In these first two lines, Smith introduces the central character, the dead man, but the reader is still unsure of who the poem’s narrator actually is. What we do know is that “Nobody heard him” before he died, and that even though he is dead, “still he lay moaning.” The colon at the end of line two indicates that the dead man is about to speak in a moaning voice. This establishes an eerie tone in the poem, which continues to develop a conversation between the dead and the living.
In these lines, the dead man himself explains the cause of his death. Although Smith never mentions the ocean explicitly in the poem, we can guess that “too far out” literally means too far out at sea, and we can conclude that the man swam into dangerous waters. But it is clear that distance alone did not cause the man’s death. He explains that the onshore observers mistook his thrashing for waving and were oblivious of his calls for help.
At this point in the poem, Smith begins playing with point of view, switching pronouns to cast confusion about who is actually speaking. The poem begins in third person, with an anonymous voice referring to the dead man as “him” and to the unhelpful witnesses as “nobody.” But when it comes time for the dead man to tell his side of the story, the voice is in second person, offering the direct address: “I was much further out than you thought.” The point of view switches just fast enough for the reader to have to guess who the man is speaking to: the witnesses, the reader, or both? This tactic draws the reader into the poem by making him a party to the confusion of the man’s calls for help.
In this line the bystanders reveal that they knew the man better than we first thought. They refer to him as “poor chap,” a distinctively British remark, and comment on how he “always loved larking.” To “lark” or “go on a lark” means to play, dance, or frolic; it is an oddly cheery description of the man who just drowned. This flippant tone, along with the matter-of-fact emotionless remark “and now he’s dead,” are our first indications that, although the bystanders were familiar with the drowned man, they did not know him very well after all. Regardless, they continue to speculate about the reasons for his death.
In this run-on line, the bystanders hypothesize that the man may have drowned because the water was too cold; thus, the cause of death would be hypothermia, which made his heart stop, or “g[i]ve way.” Smith, however, leaves room in this line for speculation. Describing the water as cold enough to stop his heart may reflect, or be a metaphor for, the swimmer’s emotional state; isolated and shivering, his heart may have broken from loneliness. On both literal and metaphorical levels, this is a description of a desperate scene and a horrible way to die.
Any English teacher would point out that line 7 is technically a run-on sentence since it combines two independent ideas without proper punctuation to separate the thoughts. It is also the longest line in the poem at twelve words, which this draws additional attention to it. When read aloud, the string of single-syllable words create the effect of a flat, droning voice. This may reflect the lack of emotion exhibited by the bystanders, who calmly postulate on the cause of the man’s death.
If the first stanza introduces the scene from the drowned man’s perspective and the second stanza gives the bystanders a chance to guess at his demise, then the final stanza is the last opportunity for the dead man to respond. The first thing he does is disagree completely with those who simply thought that “It must have been to cold for him his heart gave way.” He corrects them in a polite but scolding tone, by saying “Oh, no no no.” He remarks, “it was too cold always,” implying that his death may not have been as sudden as we first thought and not necessarily due to drowning. And again, by using purposefully nonspecific pronouns, Smith gives us room to ask if “it” refers to the ocean as “too cold always,” or something more. “Cold” usually implies depression, dying, and isolation; we have to ask if it was his life that was “too cold always.”
Line 10, which presents the final rhyme, reminds us the dead man is participating in this conversation. Even if Smith failed to mention he was “moaning,” we would hear the eerie voice when reading the poem aloud: notice the repetition of long vowels in the line—especially of the “o”—which mimics the sound of someone keening or crying.
In these final lines the man completes his response to those who claimed to know him when alive, stating he was “much too far out all [his] life / and not waving but drowning.” Unlike the bystanders who think of his death as a sudden drowning, the man tells us this has been going on all his life. If we read these last lines literally, he is saying that he has been “too far out” at sea, waving his arms all his life. But by reading these lines on a metaphorical level and asking how his literal explanation reflects his emotional state, we can see the deeper distinction he is pointing out in these last lines.
The poem pivots around the repeated line “not waving but drowning,” which illustrates central tension between appearance and reality: those who
- There are several audio recordings of Smith’s poetry, including The Poet Speaks (1965) by Arco, Stevie Smith (1966) by Marwell Press, and Stevie Smith (1967) by Listener Records.
knew him mistook his desperate flailing out at sea for simple and polite waving. We are probably accustomed to the metaphor of “drowning” in work, which usually means depression, love, or any feeling of barely breathing and not being able to keep your head above water. In these last lines the man admits that he has felt this way all his life, much too far out and much too cold, metaphorically “swimming alone” and isolated from others emotionally. The bystanders do not see a man on the verge of giving up, drowning. Oblivious to the depth of his sadness and breaking heart, they see the facade of a man who “loves larking,” always smiling, waving slowly and calmly even though there is miles of dark water below him.
Alienation and Loneliness
The central image in the poem is that of a man dying at sea because bystanders mistake his flailing arms for waving. To make a mistake like this, the man must have been small on the horizon, difficult for those who knew him to see clearly. Metaphorically, this image represents a man alone and alienated from the rest of the world, terribly misunderstood by those who thought they knew him. Throughout the conversation between the dead man moaning on the ground and the ambiguous crowd of bystanders, Smith gives us several images of isolation: a single person far from solid ground, trying to keep his head above water, the crowd not hearing him, the man’s heart too cold and giving way. He has spent his whole life this way, “much too far out” and “not waving but
Topics for Further Study
- How can two people look at the same situation and have completely different interpretations of what happened? Write a short poem—less than twenty lines—that explores a single event from two distinctly different points of view.
- Do you feel the technical and industrial advances the United States has made since World War II have brought people closer together or put up more barriers between people? In an age of cell phones, chat rooms, and international teleconferences, are people “connecting” more or less on a human level? Pick some examples of recent advances and explore how they have affected the way people communicate.
- Write a poem that matches Smith’s xAxA rhyme scheme from the point of view of a person who has recently died. Although the subject is morbid, let the voice sound playful in its simple form. After finishing, illustrate the poem with your own pencil drawings.
drowning.” These images accumulate to reflect the emotional state of a person detached from society, unable to communicate with others, untethered and drifting toward thoughts of suicide.
In the very first line we learn a man has died, yet miraculously, “he lay moaning.” We are usually not given the luxury of speech after death, but in this poem Smith sets up a surreal environment to explore the reasons for the man’s drowning, which he may have welcomed. In this way the poem deals with the universal topic of death in a unique manner. Like most people instinctively do after a death, the bystanders try to offer a reason for the loss. At first it should seem obvious how he died: he swam too far out from shore and drowned. For the bystanders to look for further reason indicates our first answer is not that simple. The line “It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way” suggests that the man himself had somewhat of a choice in the matter of whether or not to “give way” to death. This notion of death as something we might welcome raises the question of suicide, which the last stanza deepens through the discovery that this was not a sudden and unexpected drowning, but a slow, cold life far from land, leading finally to his decision to stop swimming.
Public vs. Private Life
You may have noticed yourself putting on a different face with your parents than with your friends, a different mask for your classmates than for your teacher. There are parts of each of us we share with friends, family, teachers, and other parts that we hold deeply inward. When there is a balance between our “public” and “private” selves, we generally lead emotionally healthy lives. But when the distance between these two widens, or if we become stuck in one self at the expense of the other, there is a danger of becoming unmoored, as with the drowning man whose private self floated too far away from his public life for anyone to hear his voice.
The three quatrains toggle between two points of view: the bystanders, whose detached voices drone in unison “It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,” and the drowned man, who moans “Oh, no, no, no, it was too cold always.” The man the public saw “loved larking,” dancing, and partying with friends. Their response to the “poor chap’s” drowning is fairly condescending, reading almost like a nursery rhyme: “And now he’s dead … They said.” This superficial public image contrasts greatly with the private life he must have been leading, sunk too far inside his private troubles for anyone to recognize his depression.
The almost comic misunderstanding between public and private perceptions is illustrated best in the title and repeated line “not waving but drowning.” The public who thinks the man loved dancing and singing does not hear a single call for help; they have no reason to believe the man’s waving deserves any more of a response than a polite wave back. He had been putting on such a believable public mask all his life no one suspected he was privately cold, distant, and drowning.
“Not Waving but Drowning” is written in three rhymed quatrains, or four-line stanzas. Although the second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme, the varying line lengths and number of stressed words per line throughout the poem prevent us from pigeon-holing its construction as any specific traditional form. Instead, like other styles of poetic structure invented by an author, we refer to its construction as a “Nonce Form,” which means a form written “for the one time.”
To say the poem’s construction is without formal tradition is not to imply that Stevie Smith did not carefully and subtly craft her lines. If we look closely at the relationship between the poem’s content and the way Smith shaped of the poem’s lines and sound, we can see a pattern of interaction emerging between the two. For example, the poem’s setting is most probably an ocean coastline. Like the ocean, the poem has a swaying rhythm, as each line varies slightly in stress and length: “NO-body HEARD him, the DEAD man, / But STILL he lay MOANing.” Combined with this swaying rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, the rhymed second and fourth lines in each quatrain—moaning/drowning, dead/said, and moaning/drowning—help to create a rocking, song-like feel to the speaker’s voice. It seems unique for Smith to choose an almost childish music for a poem about social isolation. But if we think of the sound of the words as the soundtrack for the images they project, children’s songs dubbed over footage of a drowned man washed up on the shore, the poem begins to take on an eerie and haunting tone, which keeps resonating long after we have closed the book.
This is a short poem, twelve lines in three stanzas, which means that Smith did not give herself much room to “spread out” and really build momentum in each line. The poem’s short lines, ranging from two to twelve words, instead force us to read the poem slowly, pause often, and return again and again to the beginning of the next line or stanza. In this way, the short lines generally create a sense of calm, deep thought, and silence, which helps reflect the quiet, eerie, and pensive mood of the poem.
Stevie Smith is usually placed among a group of poets writing in postwar Britain simply known as “The Movement,” which included Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Smith, and Thomas Kinsella, to name a few. All of these poets shared a common sensibility, having lived through a world war that leveled parts of England and separated families. Smith grew up in a time when women were expected to remain at home and keep house, or to work as a secretary, taking dictation and making coffee. Resigned to her situation but not to be stifled creatively, Smith worked as a secretary during the war at the publishing offices of George Newness, where she would use office hours to type poems and stories on yellow carbon paper with a manual typewriter. One of her earliest novels, wittily named Novel on Yellow Paper, draws heavily from autobiographical experience. The book’s central character, Pompey Casmilus, serves as the eyes through which Smith explores the consciousness of England during World War II, balancing a mundane office job with the turmoil of private relationships and the larger, national sense of dislocation concerning the war.
The horror of World War II greatly affected its British survivors. The lists of Nazi war crimes grew as allied troops liberated German concentration camps, revealing a holocaust of millions. America had tested its newest technology in the name of stopping the war by dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese civilian populations. In the years shortly after the war it became clear that these atomic weapons would change the face of world politics, as each country raced to create their own ultimate “peace maker.” Some critics have noted how drastically the war changed the everyday interpersonal relations of British people. John Press characterized this mood as a “spiritual desolation in which men have shed the last rags of religious faith that once lent meaning to human lives.”
Stevie Smith’s work often portrays a dislocated and emotionally detached people. She published Not Waving but Drowning the same year Britain exploded its first megaton thermonuclear weapon at Christmas island in the Pacific. Indeed, the world had settled into the Cold War, and whole countries shrouded themselves in suspicion and self-preservation. In a time that focused so heavily on the national cause, it was perhaps easy for people to feel detached from each other, invisible and isolated, although the British social standard required a smile rather than a complaint, no matter how desperate the mood. Smith captured this mood of desolation best with her metaphor of a man having swam “too far out” from a British beach, so alone in the tide that people on the shore can neither hear nor see him clearly. An individual flailing around in the depths of his life, the people who
Compare & Contrast
- 1937: Stevie Smith uses yellow carbon paper to type her first novel on a borrowed typewriter.
1957: The IBM 752 computer becomes the world’s first business computer. The young company will sell 193 of these during the following year.
1980: IBM introduces its first personal computer and soon has 75 percent of the market. It uses a new Microsoft operating system called MS-DOS.
1993: The PC market is flooded by hundreds of PC “clones” and IBM announces its worst operating loss to date. The loss, $4.6 billion, is the largest company loss recorded in history.
1957: The Soviet Union launches the Sputnik I and Sputnik II satellites, the world’s first manmade Earth satellites. Sputnik II carries a live dog.
- 1957: Britain’s Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution recommends an end to punitive laws against homosexuality “between consenting adults in private.”
1993: A federal district judge rules that the Pentagon’s 11-year-old ban on homosexuals is unconstitutional. The military, although no longer allowed to turn away any person on the basis of sexual orientation, chooses a loosely-defined “don’t ask, don’t tell” enrollment policy to maintain its status quo.
thought they knew him did not realize that he was “not waving but drowning” until it was too late, his limp body lying on shore. Smith herself was not immune to depression, often suffering long bouts of sadness during the years surrounding the poem’s publication. Like the man who corrects the bystanders “no, no, no, it was too cold always,” Smith herself attempted suicide a few months after the book was released in 1957.
Critic Catherine Civello, writing for The Explicator, described Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” as “a one-sided dialogue between a dead man and his former acquaintances,” which offers “two interpretations of [a] death by drowning.” She pointed out how the crowd’s “metaphorical deafness” reflects the man’s overall failure to communicate during his lifetime, resulting in a “spiritual alienation” from the others. Writers for The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English have pointed out that the themes of alienation and death are not exclusive to “Not Waving but Drowning” but rather “preoccupied [Smith] in her later work, often seen in a whimsical and even sprightly way, as if death were almost someone to be comfortably welcomed.” Civello shed further light on this statement by reminding us of some revealing biographical history on Smith: two months after the publication of “Not Waving but Drowning” in 1957, Smith attempted suicide.
Other scholars have focused their interpretations on Smith’s tongue-in-cheek tone, fractured voice, and seemingly childish use of form. Critics for the Oxford Companion characterized her work as often having “quick changes of tone, abrupt verrings between comic and tragic, absurd and solemn, and a range of lyrical, satirical, discursive and flippant modes.” Linda Hallett contended in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Smith combined “a deceptively simple form and mannered language with serious themes.” What remains deceptive in her work for many of these critics is the childish simplicity of her style versus what Hallett called “the mysterious, rather sinister reality which lurks behind appealing or innocent appearances.” Hallett also suggested that Smith’s nursery-rhyme voice for deeply introspective subjects and her ability to so subtly shift points of view “means that apparently straightforward pronouncements are constantly being reassessed, questioned, transformed by irony.”
Tyrus Miller teaches comparative literature and English at Yale University, and has written extensively on twentieth-century poetry, fiction, and visual culture. In the following essay, Miller describes how Smith, in only 12 lines, makes possible multiple interpretations and presents a surprising and unexpected level of despair.
“Not Waving But Drowning,” written in April of 1953, is Stevie Smith’s most highly regarded poem. Its simple, seemingly dashed-off stanzas and spare, conversational diction lend the work its deceptive lightness. At first glance, it appears to be a poetic version of an old joke about two friends diving down deeper and deeper, one following the other, which concludes with the ironic punch line, “I’m not waving, you idiot! I’m drowning!” At the same time, however, its uncanny dead man’s voice shares something of the macabre irony of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which the mermaid, granted her wish for feet, appears to dance, but is really suffering excruciating pain with every step on dry land. The poem also brings to mind the disquieting twist in Franz Kafka’s parable of the sirens, bird-like sea creatures who lure sailors to their death, not through malicious intent, but because their cries of lamentation sound so beautiful to human ears.
In fact, with her masterful control of tone, Smith encourages us to misrecognize at first her poem’s more serious claims on us, forcing us to do an embarrassed double take, as if we ourselves—as readers—had mistaken the cries of a drowning man for mere “waving and larking” (British slang for “playing”) in verse. Significantly, Smith wrote the poem when she was deeply depressed, “too low for words,” she said. At the same time, with more than a little touch of grim wit, she also recognized its potential comic dimension, going so far as to claim that it might be right for the British humor magazine Punch. But for all her light-hearted waving, her skating on the edge of a joke grown thin, the poem is a signal to the reader not to linger too long in the error of the dead man’s friends. The poet’s wave should be understood for what it is: a pen-hand thrown up in a plea for help before the darkness covers her over and the chill of her life breaks her heart.
The spareness of Smith’s poem—a mere twelve lines, and some of those repeated or nearly repeated—conceals the richness of meanings implied even in the simplest, most straightforward passages. The poem apparently presents two main voices, ironically juxtaposed and alternating throughout the poem: the dead man’s moaning and the mistaken voices of “they,” his friends and acquaintances. The interplay between these two voices dramatizes the main theme of misinterpreting signs, such as taking cries for help as playful greetings and understanding bitter expressions of despair for joking and fun. But Smith manipulates her point of view in more complicated ways, lending multiple facets to the rather obvious irony of the situation and allowing her poem to cast its reflections upon its author and not just on its characters.
Thus, for example, the first two lines—“Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning”—present the reader with an immediate paradox: how could a dead man be moaning, and if nobody heard him, who is reporting this fact? What is this view from nowhere, this narration by nobody? In these lines, a third voice quietly announces its presence in the poem, but at the same time conceals its true nature from us. While the interests and emotions of the two main voices are clearly defined—the one anguished, the other oblivious and facile—we can only guess what this voice of the “nobody” who gives witness must think and feel. It appears in only two other lines, line 8 (“They said.”) and line 10 in parentheses (“Still the dead one lay moaning”). This shadowy figure listens in and interprets what is there to hear, both the words that are spoken and the unexpressed ideas drawn out of the silence of death. Implicitly, the figure’s few lines contrast with the short, easy words the man’s acquaintances use to explain his death and turn to other things, to the painful moaning of the dead man, which forces itself on the ears of this “nobody,” and which, Smith suggests, must go on and on because there are no words ever to bring his lament to an end.
Smith uses pronouns with great subtlety in the poem, again exploiting a minimum of means to a richness of effect. It is notable just how many different
What Do I Read Next?
- Stevie Smith often illustrated her collections of poetry with playful and eccentric drawings, which contribute to interpretations of the poems they illustrate. A good example of this occurs in her book A Good Time Was Had By All, 1937.
- Smith was also a well-respected fiction writer and playwright. You can read some of her prose in the recently released A Very Pleasant Evening with Stevie Smith: Selected Shorter Prose, 1995.
- Smith published nine books of poetry in her lifetime, including Not Waving but Drowning. Two additional collections appeared after her death. Beginning with her first collection, A Good Time Was Had By All (1937), Smith embellished her work with sketches, lending insight to her poems. Her three novels, like her poetry, are highly autobiographical, as well as similar in theme, language and structure. In fact, she frequently infused her novels with poetry. The poem “Over-Dew,” for example, first appeared in her novel The Holiday (1949).
- Contemporaries of Smith include W. H. Auden and C. Day Lewis, though their works vary significantly. Smith claimed to have been influenced instead by such poets as William Blake, Alfred Tennyson, George Herbert, and John Donne. Even so, a comprehensive source on British poetry of the 1950s is The Movement: British Poets of the 1950s (1993).
pronouns she employs in a mere twelve lines: “nobody,” “he / him,” “I / my,” “you,” “it,” “they,” and “one.” Pronouns, generally speaking, mark positions in speech which different persons or things can fill as a conversation or story progresses: I am “I” when I refer to myself, but “you” when addressed by another and “he” when referred to in another’s narration. By constantly shifting the pronouns in this way, Smith gives her poem a kind of multidimensional quality, as if with each change of pronoun a new, previously unseen facet of a sculpture were turned to the reader.
Smith also achieves fine effects through careful repetition and variation of her pronouns. Thus, for example, the “he” in line 2 (“But still he lay moaning”) is pronounced by the unidentified third voice, while the “he” in lines 5 and 6 (“Poor chap, he always loved larking / And now he’s dead”) is spoke by “they.” Even though the same pronoun has been repeated, the perspective has shifted, and the narrator who hears and understands the dead man’s moans is differentiated from the others who hear nothing. Analogously, in the near-repetition of the first two lines in line 10, Smith introduces a slight, but significant variation: “the dead man” in the opening lines becomes “the dead one” when the phrase returns in the last stanza. It is as if, in the time it took for “they” to pronounce their uncomprehending words, the dead man’s body had already begun to decay. No longer recognizable as a man it has lost its form and figure and become an impersonal thing, a “one” or mere corpse. This variation, then, does more than add verbal texture to the poem’s very minimal diction. It also implies, with great delicacy and economy, the movement of time and the all-too-rapid withdrawal of the attention of the living—including the poet and the reader—from the dead man, who will continue to suffer his death alone just as he once did his life.
To similar ends, Smith exploits the possibility of grammatical ambiguities in particular lines, allowing them to be read in more than one way, depending on what part of speech a word is taken to represent. In fact, this technique can be seen as a kind of “vertical” equivalent to the repetition of words or phrases as the poem progresses. Although the line only appears once, it is as if it were an overlay of several repeated readings, each with a different emphasis. The most striking instance of this technique is Smith’s use of the word “still” in lines 2 and 10. “Still” can have a temporal sense, meaning something is continuing: The snow is still falling. It can also, however, mean “unmoving,” an appropriate adjective to use for a dead man. It can mean “silent,” as in the night was still and peaceful; this third sense heightens the paradox of the dead man’s moaning and speaking. Nobody heard him speak, perhaps, because his speech was “still,” or silent. Finally, “still” can indicate a concession on the part of a speaker: “He’s made some mistakes, but still, he’s a good president.” Smith’s syntax allows us to construe “still” not as referring to the man, but rather as qualifying the unidentified narrator’s testimony: “Nobody heard him. Still (all the same), he lay moaning.” Once again, this ambiguity significantly complicates the simple surface of the poem, so easy, at first glance, to understand. Smith thus dramatizes how apt we are to overlook hidden depths by taking things to be simple, un-problematic, and without need of closer attention. The ambiguities of the poem stand as a warning: a simple word may no more mean just what it says than a wave need always be a sign of friendly greeting and happy larking.
Finally, Smith uses the forms and relations of the stanzas themselves to intensify the pathetic contrast between the dead man’s lament and the survivors’ obliviousness to his anguish, both when he was living and after his death. The poem places the survivors’ words in the second stanza, framed between two repetitions of the dead man’s moaning complaint. This framing gives the dead man and his paradoxical speech-in-silence the first and last word, thus emphasizing the hasty, distracted quality of the survivors’ words; they speak once and disappear, whereas the dead man keeps speaking to the end. The irregular, choppy rhythms of the second stanza further accentuate our sense that the survivors would like to finish their perfunctory show of grief and to turn to other, more pleasant tasks as soon as possible. The shortest lines of the poem—“And now he’s dead,” (line 6) and the abrupt “They said” (line 8)—surround the long, but breathless run-on phrase, “It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way” (line 7). The lack of punctuation emphasizes that these are ready-made phrases, thrown together haphazardly, easily rolling off the tongue, and just as readily disposed of once used.
The dead man’s words, in contrast, return further enriched when they reappear in the closing stanza. When lines 3 and 4 are repeated and varied in lines 11 and 12, they take on a new, metaphorical
“The poet’s wave should be understood for what it is: a pen-hand thrown up in a plea for help before the darkness covers her over and the chill of her life breaks her heart.”
sense. “I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning” has become an image not only for the man’s way of dying, but also for his way of living. It is a fitting close to his life that his acquaintances mistook his flailing distress for happy waves, since they always mistook his “larking,” his joking and play, to imply a lack of trouble instead of his way of fighting against the dark waters closing over him. He was always “too cold” and his heart had already given way and been broken by his lonely isolation long before he literally suffered this fate. It is this metaphorical resonance in the repeated lines that gives the poem its full pathos and lends it a deep uncanniness. For not only does the dead man continue to moan and speak as if he were still alive, but he also tells us that when he was alive, and could still speak, he was in a sense already silent, “still,” and dead. His ghostly life-in-death, then, is no more than a sad continuation of his solitary death-in-life.
Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, Thaddeus points out Smith’s preoccupation with death—many times for effect—and explores the reason why the poems with this focus are often “unrelentingly merry.”
Florence Margaret Smith, who retained her nickname Stevie throughout her adulthood and published under its androgynous rubric, reveled in incongruities. Her poetic speakers shift from male to female, conformist to nonconformist, simple to complex, and adult to child; at times, indeed they are both alive and dead. She frequently set her poems to well-known tunes and sang them rather tonelessly to willing listeners, and she often appended sketches whose relationship to the text is problematic. Her syntax is odd, her rhymes unexpected, her numbers idiosyncratic, and as a result her work is nearly always lively and original. Her poems have an immediate appeal, and yet many of them bear considerable rereading. The frequent incongruities chiefly account of the double effect.
Smith’s odd juxtapositions and her love of paradox invite comparison—not infrequently pursued by her critics—to Blake. She herself was aware of the parallel, even calling one of her poems “Little Boy Lost.” Like Blake she writes parables, redefines Christianity, addresses animals, sees angels, uses simple language, and illustrates her poetry, but in all essentials she and Blake are significantly different. Blake’s is a handy-dandy world where justice and thief change places, and so is Stevie Smith’s; but Blake’s humor is rarer and more likely to serve an ultimate if not an ulterior purpose. Smith’s humor is embodied and pervasive, more like the sort of extra joy which Coleridge called the “blossom of the nettle.” …
Death, both natural and induced, was Stevie Smith’s primary subject, at least partly because she knew that she could rivet and audience with it. She enjoyed invoking what I would designate as “the gleeful macabre.” Kay Dick writes in Ivy and Stevie that in 1970, when the Queen gave Smith a medal, “the poor darling kept asking me questions about poetry. I rather got the impression it wasn’t her favorite subject … and I got rather nervous and said, ‘I don’t know why, but I seem to have written a lot about murder lately,’ … and the smile got rather fixed.” Stevie Smith’s humor often—and quite deliberately—evokes the fixed smile and nervous giggle.
Her interest in death was not a pose. Her central assumption, the core of her nature, was the recognition that death is always available, the only friend who is as close as the river, waiting in every bottle of aspirin: “‘two hundred and I am free,’ / He said, ‘from anxiety.’” Death was “end and remedy”; “I cannot help but like Oblivion better / Than being a human heart and human creature.” Even in a 1970 anthology for children [titled The Batsford Book of Children’s Verse], Smith mentioned in her introduction the freeing knowledge that death is available; and she chose to include the “fiercer” romantic efforts, together with Blake’s sick rose and Nashe’s falling brightness. Predictably, her American publishers insisted on publishing the book as an adult anthology.
We are all familiar with twentieth-century poetry which exalts suicide, especially poetry by women. But the feeling in Stevie Smith is quite different from that in Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” is clenched in anger and pain: “I do it so it feels like hell.” Sexton’s death wish is egotistical, witchlike, six-fingered. Smith’s suicidal speakers are more serene, severed from the poet herself by the fact that they are almost invariably male. Although they are sometimes trivial or absurd, they do not rake and claw their friends and lovers as they go, and death itself is a gentle alternative to the complexities of life—“Those sweet seas the deepen are my destiny / And must come if not soon.”
Being always ready for death requires a special kind of life. Smith herself said [in Ivy and Stevie], “I love life. I adore it, but only because I keep myself well on the edge. I wouldn’t commit myself to anything. I can always get out if I want to.” Rejection and withdrawal, a diffidence in commitment—these are often the subjects of the poems. Affection is not simply spread around … rather, there is a general hesitation. This gingerliness is the quality which perhaps most severely distinguishes Smith’s content from Blake’s.…
Certainly uneasiness, melancholy, the closeness of death are always lurking near Stevie Smith’s poems, no matter what the subject. The poems are unkind, even misanthropic at times, and God himself is not free from blame. Why then, is the effect unrelentingly merry? …
Stevie Smith rarely holds out … hope. She more frequently depicts the comic poignancy of the here and now. This comic poignancy is the message of what is probably her best-known poem, “Not Waving but Drowning.” …
This poem is the cry of a child, but of a child who has lived long enough to look like an adult. Most adults learn to stay near shore, but this male speaker was “much too far out all my life.” He is dead, yet he still speaks. He pities himself, yet everyone else thought “he always loved larking”; they never saw through the external merriment into the sadness. Stevie Smith at times reveled in her melancholy, vied to be sadder than anyone else. “If you attempt to be more melancholy than me I shall be more than furious: I shall be hurt. I felt too low for words (eh?) last weekend, but worked it off for all that in a poem, and Punch like it, think it funny I suppose, It was touching, I thought—called ‘Not Waving but Drowning.’” Although she twitted Punch for finding the poem funny, her own illustration is decidedly incongruous. The speaker is a man, but here we have a girl surely standing only waist deep, neither waving nor drowning, simply peering through wet hair. Stevie Smith said she chose her illustrations arbitrarily, but seeming capriciousness is a technique in her poetry, and simply because an illustrations seems incongruous is no reason to dismiss it. The illustration in this case can only pique the reader’s amusement. By adding this picture, Smith further intermingled all the experiences we are busily docketing, and trounced our fears of death and other inevitabilities. Later, even at that moment when her brain tumor had weakened her beyond repair, she could laugh at her own extinction; note one final time the fact that Death is the only God who is dutiful, and demote him to a lowercase g: “Ah me, sweet Death, you are the only god / Who comes as a servant when he is called.” Her danse macabre is always so vital, death and life seem to be so inextricably mixed, that we leave her feeling braver, able to laugh at whatever comes our way.
Source: “Stevie Smith and the Gleeful Macabre” in Contemporary Poetry, Vol. 3, 1978, pp. 36-49.
In the following excerpt, poet Philip Larkin challenges the notion that Smith’s poems are strictly lighthearted, and he praises the originality and uniqueness of her verse.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
“[S]he is always at her most characteristic when uttering the unexpected that once expressed is never forgotten. Her most celebrated poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ does precisely this.…”
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Source: “Frivolous and Vulnerable” in Required Writings: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983, pp. 153-58.
Civello, Catherine, “Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning,” in The Explicator, Heldref Publications, 1983, pp. 58-9.
Dick, Kay, The Poet Speaks, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.
Hallett, Linda Rahm, “Stevie Smith,” in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 20: British Poets Detroit: Gale, 1983, pp 346-50.
Hamilton, Ian, ed., The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 501.
Bedient, Calvin, Eight Contemporary Poets: Charles Tomlinson, Donald Davie, R. S. Thomas, Philip Larkin, W. S. Graham, London: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Bedient anthologizes poems from eight post-World War II British poets, offering biographical information and criticism for each.
Civello, Catherine, Patterns of Ambivalence: The Fiction and Poetry of Stevie Smith, Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997.
Civello draws from social history, psychoanalytic theory, feminist philosophy, and literary criticism to offer a new reading of Smith’s work, particularly conflicting desires toward life, love, self, and God in her poetry.
Day, Gary, and Brian Docherty, eds. British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
This comprehensive book draws from political and artistic criticism to offer historical context to post-World War II British poetry.
Severin, Laura, Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
Severin’s extensive study challenges the popular notion of Smith as an eccentric and apolitical poet, instead portraying her as a well-connected literary insider.