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Stevie Smith

Not waving
but drowning

Some challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 3 March 2014
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The poet examines in an almost playful manner the implications of someone suffering psychological distancing from society, where the person becomes mentally or socially "dead" to the community, where the person is crying out for rescue but where no-one even notices.


"Stevie" was only her nickname. She was actually christened Florence Margaret Smith.

She was born in Yorkshire in 1902. At about the age of three, however, she and her sister were abandoned by their father and would be raised by their mother in London.

Her mother died while she was a teenager after which the future poet and her sister came to be cared for by their unmarried aunt, a domineering woman who would leave a distinct mark on Ms Smith's future character.

After graduating from the North London Collegiate School for Girls, Ms Smith began work as a secretary to a magazine publisher and started writing at the same time.

She published her first novel at the age of 34 and her first book of verse would follow when she was 35.

Many of her poems were illustrated with rough doodles, and she established a reputation for writing simple, almost nursery rhyme poetry but which was nevertheless rich in meaning. Her favourite themes were death, her religion and fairy stories.

Ms Smith won several awards for her poetry, including the Chomondeley Award (1966) and the Queen's Gold Medal (1969).

She would remain in the same house in London from age three until her death. She died of a brain tumour in 1971 at the age of 69.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:"
  • If the man was already dead, then how could he still have been moaning? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet introduce this theme with the word "Nobody"? (4)

[Need help?]

"I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning."
  • Having stated her theme about the dead man, the poet switches to the 1st person. What is her purpose in doing this? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet mean when she says, "I was much further out than you thought"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does there appear to be confusion about the dead man "not waving but drowning"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said."
  • Comment on the tone that would be used with the words, "Poor chap". (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is meant by "larking"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Is it true that the dead man "always loved larking"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • The poet introduces the idea of coldness which she sustains into the next verse. What coldness is she talking about? (4)

[Need help?]

  • The poet explains that "his heart gave way". How many meanings can you find for the word "heart" within this context? (4)

[Need help?]

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