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Not Waving but Drowning

Not Waving but Drowning


by Stevie Smith

Stanza 2 Summary

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

Line 5

Poor chap, he always loved larking

  • Apparently he was a fun-loving guy before he drowned. "Larking" means goofing around or playing. 
  • Okay, we got that. But wait, who's telling us that he loved larking? It doesn't sound like the dead man still. "Poor chap" doesn't seem like his style. Could it be the speaker from lines 1-2? Whoever it is sounds more sympathetic than the voice that told us the guy was a whiner. Maybe it's the folks who thought he was waving, and now they're pretty sad he turned out to be drowning all along.
  • This voice's tone doesn't quite match the occasion. "Chap" is a very informal word for man, and larking is an activity that lacks seriousness. But the dude drowned. Doesn't get more serious than that.
  • A neat Greek word for this mismatch between situation and tone is bathos. It means a kind of sinking from the serious to the ridiculous. From the dramatic and sad first stanza, we move to a chatty, informal statement.
  • To sum up, someone is saying, it's a bummer this dude died, because he really liked to party.

Line 6

And now he's dead

  • At first glance, it's hard to dig much more out of this line. Dude's dead. We get it. But let's milk this line for all it's worth anyways. Just for fun. 
  • Besides being a statement of the obvious, this line also works with line 5 to set up another contrast of moods. Larking is lively and fun, while being dead is boring and sad and pretty much the pits. This echoes the contrast between waving and drowning in line 4 and the title.
  • It's a hard truth that someone can be here enjoying life one minute and be gone the next. The transience of life is a serious theme of religious and philosophical thought. You often hear a priest or minister say something to this effect at a funeral.
  • Hmm… could the scene here be the dead man's funeral or wake? Remember from line 2 that he lies there, still. Maybe this statement is what a religious figure or the man's friends say over his body.
  • Usually that would be an occasion to get poetic or emotional, but this line is very blunt. Its obviousness and lack of feeling emphasize the silliness of line 5.
  • Whoever's speaking isn't doing a great job of memorializing. The man's dead, for Pete's sake! Can't he get a more heart-felt eulogy? 
  • If you're not mad at this voice's insensitivity (or even if you are), you could be forgiven for laughing at this point. Maybe just a giggle. We here at Shmoop are amused, anyway. And if that makes us insensitive, well, we think Stevie would approve. 
  • That's because we're caught up in the contrast between the tragic tone of the first stanza and the informal, obvious statements of this stanza. When you expect something and get its opposite, laughter is often the reaction, even if it's a wee bit distasteful.
  • Notice that this is the shortest line we've seen so far. To learn more about how the poem plays with line length and meter, check out our "Form and Meter" section.

Line 7

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way, 

  • The voice moves from lukewarm lament to trying to rationalize the death. We assume again that "it" means the water, wherever it is that the dead man drowned. "Must" is used in a way that shows uncertainty about the cause. Basically, we can imagine the folks he left behind saying this, hoping to understand the tragedy.
  • Huh, this is a run-on sentence. What's the poet up to here? Did she just forget a period after "him"? Why squish those two clauses together?
  • Something was too cold, and his heart stopped. Without punctuation between these rationalizations, it's hard to tell if this is a description of cause and effect or just two different reasons. To be fair, we can't even say for sure if the same person is saying both things. 
  • Whoever's speaking, running the reasons together this way makes them seem like careless excuses. Even though the speaker or speakers seem sympathetic to the dead man, they don't care enough to take their time and figure out what really happened.
  • This is by far the longest line in the poem, almost as if it stole some words from the lines around it. Try reading the poem out loud. What happens to the speed of your reading when you reach these lines? You start to rush, right? 
  • Click through to "Form and Meter" for more discussion of how this long line plays with the differences between spoken and written poetry.
  • One final note: check out the alliteration in this line. "[…] him his heart […]" repeats the h-sound, in quick succession. Head on over to the "Sound Check" section for more on this and some other cool sonic techniques.

Line 8

They said.

  • This wins the Shortest, Most Obvious Line of the Poem award.
  • But it's still important because it confirms that everything else in this stanza comes from a particular voice: not the speaker of lines 1-2, not the dead man from lines 3-4, but instead a mysterious "they."
  • Remember the equally mysterious "you" that the dead man talks to? "They" could be the same people he was trying to address. Instead of listening to him and his complaints, they chat idly over his corpse, rushing their way through the possible reasons he croaked.
  • It could be that the different statements in this stanza come from individual speakers, but they're presented as if coming from a singular voice. Line 7 could even represent two speakers talking over each other or responding to each other.
  • Let's recap: we have three voices in the poem so far: the speaker of lines 1-2 (and probably 8), the dead man in lines 3-4, and whoever "they" are in lines 5-7. There's a lot of people talking in this short poem. Do they hear each other?

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