Death, Loneliness and Society. A comparison of poems by Stevie Smith and Jenny Joseph

Essay 2006 6 Pages

Didactics - English - Discussion and Essays



1. A comparison of the themes of ‘Death’ and ‘Loneliness’ in “Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith, and in “Warning” by Jenny Joseph

2. A comparison of the theme of ‘Society’ in “Poor Soul, Poor Girl!: A Debutante” by Stevie Smith, and in “This be the Verse” by Philip Larkin

3. Bibliography

A comparison of the themes of ‘Death’ and ‘Loneliness’ in “Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith, and in “Warning” by Jenny Joseph

To the present day there is no scientific evidence for a human creature coming back from the death, even though there are a number of people claiming to have had close-death experiences. A common theme in literature and film, there are a couple of works that attempt to describe how it would be to go through death and come back to life, among them the Resurrection of Christ in the Bible and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to mention a famous work. But also more recent pieces treat the same subject: the 1990 Columbia Tristar movie Flatliners shows a group of ambitious young scientists who, in an arrogant experiment, cross the border of life and death on purpose only to come back and describe the experience. All EU 10504 Contemp. Brit. Lit. & Film Comp. Poems Katja Buthut, 06/07 those works, however, are the bare attempt to paint a picture none of us will probably ever be able to verify. Literature, even so, has dealt with this subject for a long time and hand in hand with this goes also the theme of ‘Loneliness’, as everybody dies alone.

In her poem “Not Waving but Drowning” Stevie Smith deals with the both of the subjects exceedingly, no matter what short the text may look like at first glance. Using everyday language and employing a down-to-earth style, the author is capable of revealing the whole misery of someone who has died. There are at least three distinctive voices speaking in the poem; one of whose being the narrative voice that tells the reader what has happened. A man was out at sea, presumably swimming in the cold water. He was “much too far out” (Smith), so he called for help by waving his hands in order to make somebody be aware of his situation. But apparently the people on the beach misunderstood his gestures and did not help him. He died alone. After his death people, who obviously knew him little, talk about him and the reason why he died. They say he was a man who “always loved larking” (Smith). But the dead man replies them, “moaning” (Smith), that he needed help, not only in this final fatal situation but throughout his whole life. But nobody saw it coming, even though he had been warning them throughout his life, by metaphorically waving his arms.

The poem has only three stanzas with four lines each, but shows an internal and external symmetry. The external symmetry is easy to discover by looking at the rhymes scheme; the author has employed in every single stanza the scheme of a-b-c-b, the simple 4-line scheme. The internal pattern refers to the rhythm of the words, the measure. In this poem, though not really constantly, the words seem to follow a dactyl measure, meaning that only the first of three syllables is stressed. This reminds the reader of the rhythm of a waltz, a 3/4 time, a very steady and almost rigid beat. One could even go so far as to associate the time of the words with the unchanging and regular voice of the sea, the movements of the waves, that is often connected to the passing of time and to the invariable flow of life.

To underline what has been said before there are some stylistic devices that emphasize this interpretation. The elliptic form of the title and the repetition of the very same words during the text: “Not Waving but Drowning,” (Smith) which is echoed at the end of stanza one and stanza three, giving the poem a circular movement by putting this sentence at the beginning and at the end of it. Also the phrase “much further out” (Smith) and its intensification “much too far out” (Smith) are repeated in those stanzas. The second stanza seems to stand out, for its contents and also the lack of what seems to be typical in this poem, regarding the stylistic devices. In this second stanza the scene is removed from the dead man to the people on the beach who talk about him and keep misunderstanding him even after his death. This is probably also the reason why it stands aside.



ISBN (eBook)
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380 KB
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Institution / College
University of Bath – Department of European Studies and Modern Languages
Stevie Smith Jenny Joseph Philip Larkin Britische Literatur



Title: Death, Loneliness and Society. A comparison of poems by Stevie Smith and Jenny Joseph