Not Waving but Drowning

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"Not Waving but Drowning" is a poem by the British poet Stevie Smith. It was published in 1957 as part of a collection of the same title.[1] The most famous of Smith's poems,[2] it gives an account of a drowned man whose distressed thrashing in the water had been mistaken for waving.[3] The poem was accompanied by one of Smith's drawings, as was common in her work.

The poem's personal significance has been the topic of several pieces of literary criticism because Smith was treated for psychological problems. She contemplated suicide at the age of eight after what she described as a difficult childhood and her struggle with the fact that her father abandoned her.[4]


Like many of Smith's poems, "Not Waving but Drowning" is short, consisting of only twelve lines. The narrative takes place from a third-person perspective and describes the circumstances surrounding the "dead man" described in line one. In line five the poem suggests that the man who has died "always loved larking," which causes his distress signals to be discounted.[2]

The image that Smith attached to the poem shows the form of a girl from the waist up with her wet hair hanging over her face. Although the image goes with a poem about a man drowning, the girl's expression appears incongruous with the text of the poem as it forms what Severin describes as a "mysterious smile".[5] Jannice Thaddeus suggests that the speaker of the poem, like other figures in Smith's works, changes from male to female as part of a theme of androgyny that exists in many of the poems found in Selected Poems.[6] The sketch differs from the poem in that the figure is of a woman rather than a man, and Smith scholar Laura Severin suggests that the figure might be Mary, a character in another poem by Smith entitled "Cool as a Cucumber." The drawing was used as the accompanying image for the poem "The Frozen Lake" in Selected Poems, a self-edited compilation of Smith's works published in 1962.[5][7]

While Ingrid Hotz-Davies suggests that the "drowning man" is Smith herself, she also states that there are problems with reading the poem as a cry for help due to the humorous tone of the poem yet at the same time she also notes that the representational form of the poem "may easily be misread as a friendly wave of the hand".[2] The poem's simple diction led Clive James to suggest that Smith attempted to write the poem so that the diction appeared ignorant of poetic convention yet was carefully crafted to appear more simple than it was.[8] James describes the relationship between Smith and the speaker in "Not Waving but Drowning" by saying, "her poems, if they were pills to cure Melancholy, did not work for [Smith]. The best of them, however, worked like charms for everyone else."[8]

In other media[edit]

The poem was not perfromed as part of the 1976 album Tears of Steel & the Clowning Calaveras released by Australian singer Jeannie Lewis (Track 4b), and recited by two actors: Lex Marinos as the "Narrator" (...but still he lay moaning), and Nick Lathouris as the "Dead Man" (I was too far out...)[citation needed]

Australian ambient and alternative music group Not Drowning, Waving take their name from the poem.[9]

A track on Julian Cope's 1991 album Peggy Suicide was titled "Not Raving but Drowning" after the poem.[10]

The poem was set to music by singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt on his debut album Little, with a spoken introduction from a Stevie Smith recording.[citation needed]

Tanita Tikaram set the poem to music as the b-side to her single "I Might Be Crying".[11]

Erin McKean wrote a short story entitled "Not Waving But Drowning" which was published in Machine of Death, a collection of short stories. In it she talks of the poem and the author.[citation needed]

Composer Nina C. Young set the poem in a piece scored for solo viola, piano, and mixed choir.[citation needed]

English experimental post-punk band This Heat paraphrase the title and theme of the poem in their song "Not Waving", from their 1979 eponymous debut album.[citation needed]

British confessional rapper Loyle Carner used the poem’s title for his sophomore album of the same name. The title track features a reading of the poem from Stevie Smith over piano chords composed by Jordan Rakei.

Scottish rock band Big Country recorded the song "Not Waving But Drowning" as part of the sessions for the Peace In Our Time album. The track would ultimately end up as a bonus track on the single "King Of Emotion". [12]


  1. ^ Sternlicht, Sanford V.Stevie Smith. Twayne Publishers (1990) p. 63.
  2. ^ a b c Hotz-Davies, Ingrid. "My Name is Finis: The Loneliness of Stevie Smith". Rodopi (1994) p.233.
  3. ^ Rose, Gillian. Mourning becomes the law: philosophy and representation. Cambridge University Press (1996) p.38.
  4. ^ Walsh, Jessica. "Stevie Smith: Girl Interrupted"Papers on Language and Literature" Vol.40.
  5. ^ a b Severin, Laura. Stevie Smith's Resistant Antics. Univ. of Wisconsin Press (1997) p.71-72.
  6. ^ Thaddeus, Janice."Stevie Smith and the Gleeful Macabre," Contemporary Poetry Vol. 111, No. 4, 1978, pp. 36-49.
  7. ^ Smith, Stevie. Collected PoemsNew Directions Publishing (1983) pp 393-396.
  8. ^ a b James, Clive. As of This Writing. W. W. Norton & Company (2003) p.127.
  9. ^ Nimmervoll, Ed. "Not Drowning Waving". Howlspace. Archived from the original on 27 July 2012.
  10. ^ Liner notes to album Peggy Suicide by Julian Cope.
  11. ^ "Tanita Tikaram – I Might Be Crying". Discogs. Retrieved 13 April 2019.
  12. ^ "Not Waving But Drowning". Retrieved 2019-06-21.

The History Boys- p34

External links[edit]