Black Humor Through Poetry in Stevie Smiths Not Waving But Drowning
In the poetry of Margaret “Stevie” Smith (1902-1971), life and death are constantly being juxtaposed. For Smith, life was usually a painful or tedious experience and death a blessed escape from its misery and futility. Having had a religious upbringing, she is also much preoccupied with God, but cannot accept traditional Christian teaching about redemption and heaven. Death is seen as an end, rather than a beginning and a relief, instead of a gateway to a reward. In “Not Waving but Drowning”, Smith’s philosophy of life as a pointless and sad experience for many people, is focused on the event of a drowning man. In the style of the poem, she writes characteristically, here, in the off-hand, irregular lyricism - often bordering on the conversational - which is the distinctive feature of her manner.
“Smith was born in Yorkshire, England but lived all but the first three years of her life in her aunt’s house in Palmers Green, London” (Washington University Libraries). She went to work at a publishing office owned by George Newnes, Ltd. soon after her graduation from North London Collegiate School (Washington Univeristy Libraries). Although continuing to write through the 1940’s and 1950’s her work was ignored by critics and the public until about the last ten years of her life (Washington Univeristy Libraries). Smith received the prestigious Queen's Gold Medal award for her poetry in 1969, two years before her death (Washington Univeristy Libraries).
Smith uses simple, short sentences, “barely audible” to express “feelings such as emotional pain, tenderness, sadness, loss, and despair” (Sternlicht 63). “Not Waving but Drowning” is saturated with irony, which is not uncommon in Smith’s poetry. The title alone implies that the poem relies heavily on irony to communicate its message. An implication of an ironic circumstance suggests that the “dead man . . . lay moaning:” possibly expressing his thoughts even after his death (line 1-2). Also note that Smith uses an imperfect rhyme scheme on the even numbered lines. An imperfect rhyme scheme occurs when the final consonant sounds in two words are the same but the vowel sounds are different. She carefully chooses the words “moaning” and “drowning” in line 2 and 4, “dead” and “said” in line 6 and 8, and “moaning” and drowning” in lines 10 and 12. I believe this simple rhyme scheme produces an even flowing poem that effectively expresses characteristics of her bluntness on life and death.
The utilization of persona that the poet assumes is an extension of her feelings for life. She is very cynical towards life in general and has an uncanny humor about the invitation of death. “The deceased persona’s indignation at being misunderstood is grotesquely as well as pathetically amusing” (Sternlicht 64). In line 5...