9 January 2017 Susannah

Poem of the Month – February 2017 – Not Waving but Drowning

Waving - not drowning, by Jenny Downing

Not Waving but Drowning, by Stevie Smith

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.


Photographic portrait of Stevie Smith

Photographic portrait of Stevie Smith

British poet Stevie Smith published this poem in a volume with the same title in 1957. As was often the case with Smith’s poems, it was accompanied by one of her drawings. The illustration showed a girl from the waist up, with wet hair around her face, smiling rather mysteriously. Smith was noted for using androgyny in her writings – perhaps the picture indicates that the drowning person is Smith herself?

Stevie Smith (1902 – 1971) was born Florence Smith, but changed her name to Stevie. Her father pretty much abandoned his family and Stevie came to dislike men. She suffered very poor health as a child – this started her preoccupation with death. She suffered depression all her life.

This remains her best known poem. Written during a time of deep depression (a suicide attempt followed soon afterwards), it is a cry for help, a plea to be recognised as different (“I was much too far out all my life”). Yet it is also a comic poem. The drowning man sounds like an unreasonable whiner, and his oblivious friends come across as buffoons with their inane comments over his corpse. All is given a touch of the ridiculous. The language is deceptively simple, possibly more suitable for comedy than tragedy. It is a poem about persistence – the drowned man insists twice (and once more in the title) that he was drowning. And it is about isolation – feeling alone and misunderstood in today’s world, unable to communicate effectively what is going wrong in our lives. It depicts the dreadful disconnection between what you feel, what you express, and what other people hear.

Clive James has written of Not Waving but Drowning: “her poems, if they were pills to cure Melancholy, did not work for (Smith). The best of them, however, worked like charms for everyone else.” It is an intriguing poem – while it is not one for sheer enjoyment, it is a poem that makes you stop and think.

Listen to Stevie Smith discuss and recite Not Waving But Drowning:

Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.

  Poetry Foundation: Stevie Smith


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Featured image credit- Waving – not drowning, by Jenny Downing. Flickr CC licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics/
Body image credit- Photographic portrait of Stevie Smith. By http://www.bl.uk/collections/britirish/modbrismith.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15156214

Comments (2)

  1. Linda

    “the drowned man insists twice (and once more in the title) that he was waving.” Isn’t it the opposite…that he was drowning, not waving?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Linda, many thanks for spotting my error. You are of course quite right – it should be drowning, not waving. I knew what I meant, but got muddled with the word.

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