“Not Waving But Drowning”


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.

Stevie Smith is an odd duck, in the very best sense of the phrase. Her poetry can be witty and she clearly attends to strong rhymes and meters much of the time. She does not eschew anything–seemingly. Yet this impression fails to acknowledge the clear craft of her work.

“Not Waving But Drowning” looks at English “refinement” less directly than the epigram below. The poem has three speakers: the narrator, the drowned man, and his friends. The narrator gets lines 1-2 and line 10; the drowned man “speaks” lines 3-4, and the final stanza save line 10. The chums speak the second stanza.

The poem is a quick glance at the anthropology of the English. No matter how distressed one is, one puts on a hearty appearance of “larking”. Better to assume a person has had a heart attack than a possibly preventable death. And how do you discern the differences between the language of drowning and the language of play?

The dead man tells us that he’s been out too far all his life; drowning all of his life. In his few words he manages to convey a Prufrockian sense of isolation (Prufrock, too, spoke of drowning).

It’s easy to “get” the snap! response to an epigram such as:

“This English woman is so refined
She has no bosom and no behind.”

The mills of refinement have ground away at her sexuality. The two line poem pokes fun at English stereotypical ideals of class and refinement. A refined English woman would never be callipygian and would never qualify to work at Hooters.

Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry and music and is in the midst of dying

5 thoughts on ““Not Waving But Drowning””

    1. Ah, crystal clear now, though I fear I can’t imagine myself ever in the position to employ ‘callipygian’ in everyday conversation, and certainly never the other …


  1. How interesting that you discuss the ‘englishness’ of Not Waving But Drowning. This one is a favourite of mine. Whilst I accept we are known for the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, I think of the hidden pain and struggle under the respectable, jovial surface that we see in the poem as universal – you see a more culture-specific element. Food for thought…


    1. Sandra, I do think of it as universal. In the USA, however, it’s a stereotype that the English always have a stiff upper lip and always say “Mustn’t grumble” softly when an American would have a very loud complaint. The loudest people in London seem to be American tourists. But of course it’s a stereotype.

      Liked by 1 person

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