Not Waving but Drowning
by Stevie Smith
As we've mentioned before, the poem never directly says there's a body of water involved in the man's death, but it sure gives us some hints. C'mon, how else could he drown? So at first we think there's an actual swimming accident. Hasselhoff shows up too late or not at all. However, by the end of the poem, we get the sense that maybe swimming is an extended metaphor for the act of living. You try to stay afloat until you can't anymore, and then you're dead. Cheery stuff, huh?
- Title: While waving could happen anywhere, there are only a few places you can drown. Before we even start the poem, we're flooded with swimming context.
- Line 3: Being "much further out" gives us our first clue in the poem itself that we should understand the setting as some potentially dangerous body of water. The "you" addressed by the dead man suggests there were others swimming, or at least near the shore. Of course, figuratively speaking, this could mean those other people go on living their lives, while the poor guy is struggling.
- Line 4: The title comes back here to insist on reading the man's death as a failure to swim; that is, he drowns. This line will repeat at the end of the poem; this kind of repetition is called a refrain.
- Line 7: The literal drowning hypothesis picks up more steam here (to mix a metaphor) where the others speculate about what caused the death. They think the water could have been too cold or his heart too weak. Whatever the cause, they're thinking just about the moment of his death, not what led up to it.
- Line 9: The dead man tries to correct them by saying the water was always too cold. Because we doubt he's spent his whole life in the water, it's likely that he's telling them that his death was a long time coming. It's not just one moment of being too cold, it's a lifetime of it.
- Line 11: As with line 9, this line suggests a metaphorical take on swimming and drowning. He was always too far from the other swimmers or the shore, always out of the reach of help. It definitely sounds like he's talking less about a final accident and more about the long-standing isolation of his life.
- Line 12: Once the refrain comes back, we realize the dead man was trying to explain something about his life from the beginning, but we—like the people in stanza 2—thought it was only an actual drowning. Now we've heard enough to know the metaphorical truth: no one ever really heard him or could assist him, so eventually he died.