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Not Waving but Drowning

Not Waving but Drowning


by Stevie Smith

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

  • Welcome, gentle Shmoop reader, to a Stevie Smith poem. Nothing's here to greet you, except a dead man. Well, that's festive.
  • Okay, the speaker is here, too. Who is the speaker? It's too soon to tell, but we're putting feelers out. 
  • Right away, we learn the dead man must have made a noise that no one heard. Did he call for help? 
  • What did he die from anyway? Is he talking after death? Or did no one hear him before he died? Sorry to bombard you with questions, but we're just not sure yet. Hey, Shmoop doesn't know everything.
  • "Heard" is past tense, so maybe the speaker is about to detail the events of the man's death.
  • Let's stay tuned.

Line 2

But still he lay moaning:

  • Okay, now this is just weird. The dead man continues making noise, "moaning" in fact—all zombie-like.
  • "Still" could mean "not moving," though, so that rules out the walking dead. Unless you take "still" to mean that he continues moaning, even though no one's listening. The word's tricky like that, what with the double meanings and all.
  • Often when a word has two meanings, a poet wants you to think of both. Let's do that: the dead guy is moaning continually but not moving. At least he got being dead half right.
  • There's also a suggestion that his moaning isn't a new thing. Maybe he was like this when he was alive, too.
  • Not only is he still, but this line says he "lay." Where would you imagine the dead man lying? At the scene of an accident? On a table in the morgue? In his coffin? We don't really know yet, but at least he's not running around after anyone's brains.
  • The colon at the end of the line suggests something closely related to this line is about to happen. Phew. That's good news because there's a lot of basic information we still need about this situation.

Line 3

I was much further out than you thought

  • Now there's an "I" in the poem for the first time. Is it the same voice that spoke lines 1-2? Dead man talkin'.
  • Remember the colon from the previous line could signal that a list, an explanation, or even dialogue is about to occur, so this line could be what the dead man says.
  • He's not just making a moaning noise, he's complaining.
  • That sounds a little judgmental. Is the speaker of lines 1-2 giving us a peek at how he or she feels about the dead man? Maybe the speaker thinks the guy's a bit whiny. Then again, maybe not. What do you think the speaker's tone is here?
  • The dead dude's speaking about a past event, when he was much further out. We're not sure about what this event was, specifically, but we'll roll with it.
  • Look, there's someone else in this poem! The dead man speaks to "you"; he seems to have someone in mind. Is it us readers? Is it the speaker of lines 1-2?
  • Whoever it is didn't know how far out he was. So they were either oblivious or really bad at measuring.
  • Poor guy. He's dead and he doesn't know that nobody's listening to his complaints. On top of that, his intended listeners were already clueless about where he was when he was alive.

Line 4

And not waving but drowning.

  • Ah, we're finally getting down to it. Here's the line that becomes the title. We now have enough information to infer a scene: this guy swims too far out in a body of water, signals for help, other people think he's waving, and then he drowns. 
  • This is why you always use the buddy system, folks. 
  • Note that the poem itself doesn't directly mention water. We're guessing because of the drowning. We mean, it's not like you can drown in maple syrup. Strictly speaking.
  • We've also seen enough to know something about the poem's meter and rhyme. Take a look at our "Form and Meter" section to learn more about how strange they are. For now, it's enough to know right now that this stanza is what's known as a ballad stanza. Sort of.
  • Ballads are songs (but they can also be poems) that tell a story. They tend to rhyme the second and fourth lines of every quatrain (a four-line stanza) and alternate lines of four stresses and three stresses.
  • But wait a second. The ends of lines 2 and 4 don't rhyme exactly. Not to worry. Technically they do. Although "moan" and "drown" don't sound the same, they're pretty similar. And that "-ing" at the end of each of those totally does sound the same, it's just not the stressed syllable in the words. When an end rhyme lands on an unstressed syllable, we call that a feminine rhyme. 
  • Notice the contrast of moods between "waving" and "drowning." One is merry, and the other pretty grim. Why couldn't the mysterious "you" see what was really going on? Shmoop would like to think we could tell the difference between the two.
  • How specific is the setting so far? We don't exactly get the name of the beach or the sea involved, and water is never actually mentioned. That might mean that we're talking about a metaphorical setting here, rather than a real one. 
  • We're still curious what killed the man. Why did he drown? C'mon Stevie, let's get to the heart of this mystery.

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