"Not Waving But Drowning" by Stevie Smith explores the idea of isolation by being misunderstood by the people around you. The poet deepens the reader's appreciation of the theme by employing imagery, contrast and an ambiguous tone.
In the first verse both physical and emotional isolation are explored with the imagery of a drowned man. The first line, "Nobody heard him", introduces the physical isolation of the man as he was so far away no one could hear, but also could mean that no one was listening and understanding him, he was isolated by having no one to turn to. There is a confusion of tenses, "the dead man lay moaning", however, the poet is using the dead man as a symbol for her own feelings of isolation; by just existing he embodies all she is trying to say and so is in effect "moaning" to her. This personal treatment of the theme helps us appreciate it more as it shows the poet has a deep understanding. The poet uses the first person narrative ambiguously and speaks on two layers using the persona of the dead man to speak her own thoughts. The lines .
"I was much further out than you thought.
And not waving but drowning".
apply to the actual location of the drowning man, far out in the water and out of his depth, and the distance felt from other people mentally that they did not notice. The fact that they can misinterpret a cry for help as something as mundane as waving shows how little they understand of the person and how isolated the person was.
Isolation through the misunderstanding of other people is also explored in the second verse. It becomes apparent that people did not realise how the dead man felt, putting his death down to a practical joke gone wrong "he always loved larking". The word "larking" has connotations of frivolity and light heartedness and yet it is clear to the reader that the man didn't feel that way and was crying for help, for someone to notice what was happening beneath the surface.