No one heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
This poem makes me think of my experiences in the ocean around Hawaii. The waves there can be huge and lots of fun, but they have also broken a lot of necks. I have been there as a little kid, with my parents telling me to stick by them, near the shore, and as a teenager, in water so deep I could barely touch with sister, both of us watching out for each other. As much fun as the ocean is, I have had enough experience being pummeled to be wary of its dangers. Spinning in the darkness, with not idea where up is and no air is one of the scariest experiences I have had. I have also noticed how easy it is to get very far out without noticing. Thankfully, I have always been with my sister, parents, or aunts and uncles, who let me know when they thought we'd gone too far, or who came after me when I started to drift away. I always stuck with one of them so that someone would know if I went under a wave and never came up. The difference between me and the dead man in the poem seems to be that the man didn't have any family with him. And even though other people saw him, no one moved to help, no one even realized he was in danger.
There is something very sad about this poem, so much sadder than anything that ever happened to me in Hawaii. It switches through about three voices: the narrator's, the dead man's, and 'theirs'. The narrator starts the poem and, in his omniscience, explains the situation. The dead man is "moaning," a strange thing for a corpse to do, but here is seems less like the dead man's body and more like his spirit, pleading to be heard, just once, since he was never heard in life. And 'they' are nameless people, standing around a dead body, analyzing its death. The three voices take turns, each telling to situation from a different angle. 'They' are pitying, but without deep emotion. The narrator sounds a bit like God looking sadly down at His children who just don't understand. And the dead man is trying, desperately, to communicate with the people who never heard him before.
What I really love about this poem is the way the imagery and symbolism evolve. At first, we see a man waving far out in the waves. The motif "not waving but drowning" appears for the first time, and we get the sense of neglect that is prevalent throughout the poem. We then move to the body on the beach, being examined, perhaps by EMTs. Or perhaps the morgue. We hear the typical regrets of people when a life that has been cut short and the diagnosis -- his heart gave way, probably because of the cold. But then the ordinary, though not typical situation changes, as the dead man responds, "Oh, no, no no, it was too could always...I was much too far away all my life/ And not waving but drowning." In a few simple lines, the poem opens up to universal application. The ocean become a symbol for life, and the man's death has so much more meaning. I almost got chills as I read the last stanza. Perhaps it's because I can relate to being in a sea of trouble, or just a crowd of people, without anyone to notice me or help me. I don't think I'm anywhere near death, but sometimes I do feel the cold spoken of in the poem. The motif "not waving but drowning" also makes me think of how many people I may pass by without noticing that they need my help. As much as I might sympathize with the dead man, I probably act much more like the well-meaning, but insensitive 'they.'
This poem is sad, but that's what makes it powerful. It's meaning might be called obvious, but it reaches its point in such a way that it touches the heart. It makes us want to shed out natural protective shell and become less callous. It makes us want to see the faked smile and the hidden pain that we could somehow fix. It makes us believe that if we did see, we would be able to save those who are dying.
The next time we see someone waving, we'll check that they're not drowning.