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Not Waving but Drowning
Not Waving but Drowning
by Stevie Smith
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Failed Communication

Symbol Analysis

For a poem with so many voices speaking, it sure doesn't look like there's a lot of actual interaction going on. The first speaker only jumps in to set the scene, speaking just to the reader. He or she's not a joiner. The dead man desperately needs someone to understand him, but because he's dead no one can (not without calling a psychic, anyway). The other people chatter among themselves and talk over each other, not addressing the dead man, but distressing him all the same by getting the facts wrong. Everyone seems disconnected from each other in some way. Somebody needs to shut up and listen, but who?

  • Line 1: The very first thing we learn in the poem is that nobody hears the dead man, which means he speaks five out of the poem's twelve lines in vain. Bummer.
  • Line 3: Even before he died, the others didn't understand the danger he was in.
  • Line 4: He tried to signal his distress, but the others thought he was waving at them, possibly because they thought of him as a guy who liked to goof around. 
  • Lines 9-12: The entire last stanza is an attempt to correct the other people's misunderstanding of the dead man. At least he can hear what they are saying, even though he's much more caught up in his own misery. But we know from the beginning of the poem that nobody heard him: do you think this would change by the end of the poem? If not, this would be an example of dramatic irony, which means we the readers know more about the real situation than do some of the characters. In this case, we know both that the dead man suffered all his life and that nobody can hear him.