Close Reading of Not Waving but Drowning (Revised)

#vizpoem Not Waving But Drowning seems to be a poem about a guy who was depressed or disconnected from life but kept it a secret from anyone who knew him.


In the first two lines of the poem “Nobody heard him, the dead man; But still he lay moaning” uses irony to describe that the man’s spirit was still suffering but no one noticed.  The second two lines “I was much further out than you thought, And not waving but drowning” was used metaphorically to show that the man was much more disconnected than anyone knew, even though he tried to “wave” to get people’s attention, he didn’t physically wave while in a body of water, he was trying to get the attention of anyone who might be able to save him from his depression (drowning) and suffering.  In the next stanza “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” could mean that the man used to be a happy person (larking means behaving in a playful way) and either it was too cold outside for him to survive and he died from exposure or it also could mean that he felt so “cold” and “isolated” that his heart died of sadness.  In the last stanza “Oh, no no no, it was too cold always, (Still the dead one lay moaning), It was much too far out all my life, And not waving but drowning” could mean that the man was always depressed and disconnected throughout his entire life but no one knew it, he was still (Still the dead one lay moaning) trying to get the attention of someone who could help him, but was apparently always “too far out all my life” and there seemed to be no hope of anyone helping him, even though he tried “waving/getting attention” but ended up “drowning/suffering/dying.”

After listening to the song from Phil Collins (In the Air Tonight) he also sang about “drowning,” but not in the sense of being in water and going under.  The words “Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand” were about the anger he had towards his wife while he was going through a separation and divorce.  Drowning can mean a lot of things, in this song it means that he was angry at his wife because they were separating and about the things she had done, and he was letting out his feelings in his song, meaning that if his wife were physically “drowning” in water that he wouldn’t be there to help her because he was so angry.

There is an urban legend about this song too, some believe that Phil Collins wrote this song because of a personal experience he went through.  It was believed that Phil witnessed someone drowning but was too far away to help him, but saw someone closer who could help the person drowning, but he didn’t help at all.  Also, some people report that Phil Collins watched as a man, who raped his wife, drowned.  These are just myths, they are not true.  Phil Collins himself explains that he doesn’t know what the song is really about, he was so angry at the time because of his wife’s actions, he just wrote out of anger.

The word “drowning” definitely gets your attention when it is used metaphorically instead of the words “feeling overwhelmed.”  Anyone can feel overwhelmed at some point in their lives, but when you say “drowning,” it takes on a different meaning of importance or urgency.

REVISIONS 6/10/15  (I’m heading out of town today and will be back Monday so I hope it’s OK to jump ahead a little bit):

When I first read this poem, I thought it was about someone who was literally downing in a body of water, and waving for someone to come save him.  I can find all kinds of pictures showing this scenario, but as you really read into the poem and try to “picture” what the poem is really talking about, you get the sense that it is really a person who is dealing with some personal issues, and may have been dealing with these for a long time.  He feels like he is “drowning” in the weight of all of his problems and even though he tries to give subtle hints (waves) to people around him that he needs help, no one picks up on them and he then “dies/drowns” or just “gives up.”

86524175 drowning


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