Not Waving but Drowning
by Stevie Smith
Not Waving but Drowning Theme of Death
You'd think that there couldn't be a clearer distinction than the one between life and death, but "Not Waving but Drowning" goes out of its way to muddy the water, so to speak. The focus, after all, is a talking corpse who just won't shut up even though the living can't hear him. Is he alive? Was he ever alive? The other people seem to think that he used to be lively, indeed, but the picture of the dead man that comes through by the end is of a nightmarish existence that was always like being dead. No wonder he's been moaning about it.
Questions About Death
- What's the difference between life and death in this poem?
- Why do you think the other people react so bluntly to the dead man's death?
- Do you think that the dead man is a ghost or is speaking from an after-life?
Chew on This
For the dead man, his entire life was one long act of dying.
The dead man's complaint is too melodramatic to gain sympathy; plus, if drowning is metaphorical, he might not even be dead. Just in dire need of some therapy.