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"Not Waving But Drowning" And "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

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Poetry & Poets

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Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning" and Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" are similar in that both poems' characters have lived their lives with regret and sorrow. Neither of their lives were lived to the fullest and as death approaches, the question of, "what could have been?" remains forever unanswered.
Upon first reading, Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning," the image of a man, out in the middle of the ocean, may first come to mind. In desperation he is waving for help because he has swam out too far and is unable to make it back to the shore. But people misinterpret his cries as simply being a wave hello.
However, a deeper examination of the poem brings forth a more precise interpretation of its meaning. "Not Waving but Drowning," is referring to the man's struggle for help in his everyday existence. People perceive him, as being one who has everything desired in life; financial stability, strength, control, happiness, and independence. While in actuality, this man is emotionally bankrupt. But the front he has put on for so long prevents people from seeing the weakness and struggle he is enduring. In a sense, he is secretly drowning.
The line, "It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way," refers to the loneliness in this man's life. Perhaps he pushed people away from him and lived his life in isolation. Maybe he never opened himself up enough to engage in personal relationships and to love and feel love for another. Or, perhaps he was active in society and took part in social gatherings and hosted parties. And by doing this, he was seen as being happy. But he may have done this just to further disguise who he really was or how he really felt inside. No one really knew him. The irony of the poem is that the very stereotype placed on this man throughout his life ends up being the downfall to his death.

"I was much too far out all my life," could mean a number of things. Perhaps the misconceptions pertaining to this man began during childhood. It's possible that he came from an abusive or unstable household, in which he was ashamed of. And when in the presence of others, he would put on an act that everything in his life was great. The shame he felt would have remained bottled inside and he would never have learned to express his feelings or reveal his true self. This could have carried on through adulthood, causing the man to feel shame in himself, which would have never allowed him to entirely open himself up to others. Therefore this man is living with an internal conflict, with the opposing force being his true identity against his perceived identity. Or perhaps "I was much too far out all my life," pertains to this man's lifestyle or to habits he possesses. Maybe he has lived a life that would be considered abnormal by others and thus alienates himself from those around him. One can only speculate as to what inner conflicts this man was facing that would cause him to live his the life the way he has. The possibilities are endless.

The theme of Smith's poem is "what's in the eye of the beholder." People perceive the man as being entirely different then who or what he is. It's human nature to pass judgement on a person before really knowing them. A label is placed upon an individual and that individual may misconceive that label as being who they have to be, to be accepted by society. In the man's life, the labels placed upon him causes him to, in a sense, wear a mask concealing his true identity. He may feel as though he's standing in the middle of a crowding room screaming, and yet no one can hear him. It may not be because they're ignoring his screams; it may just be that he is not allowing them to hear him.

This lyric poem creates a type of sullen mood in the reader's mind. The man's struggle is something that can be related indirectly or directly to each reader's own personal experiences in life. In a way, all people put on a sort of act when they're around others. Experiences one has gone through helps to shape who a person is and how others perceive that person. The word "cold" could be used to symbolize the man's heart and attitude towards others. The line "Nobody heard him, the dead man, But still he lay moaning," allows the reader to hear in his own mind, the moans of this man in need of help and creates the chilling realization that there is ...

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Keywords: not waving but drowning meme, not waving.but drowning

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