Not Waving but Drowning
by Stevie Smith
Life and Death
Ah, the central contrast of the poem… heck, the central contrast of existence. Everything revolves around these two states in the poem, whether they're described literally or undercover as metaphors. As readers, we're left uneasy that life and death can coexist so close to each other; in fact one can even look like the other if we're too far out. Maybe it's time to move a little closer to shore.
- Line 1: We receive the bad news very bluntly here: someone is dead. Actually dead. And he doesn't even get a name.
- Line 2: The dead man is "still" and he "lay"; both descriptions sound like a corpse. Yet, he's also moaning, which is confusing. Is he alive or dead (or undead)?
- Line 4: This refrain calls up an image of a fatal swimming accident, suggesting how the dead man got that way. "Waving," though, sounds very lively.
- Line 5: The living people seem to remember him as the guy who would be waving. They thought he liked to have fun. As readers, we already know this isn't a terribly accurate profile of the dead man.
- Line 6: The blunt, obvious nature of this statement leaves us without any doubt: talking or not, the dead man is really dead.
- Line 7: "They" try to find a medical reason for the death. They're missing the point because the dead man is trying to tell them it was isolation that really killed him. So, it was more an emotional cause of a death than a physical one.
- Line 10-12: Being dead apparently doesn't stop him from trying to be heard. This stanza further confuses the difference between life and death, as well as the cause of his misfortune. Instead of a single, fatal accident, the dead man describes a lifetime of drowning. It's as if life and death weren't separate states. What could be more horrifying than feeling like you're dying your entire life?