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Symbolism In Mental Illness: Critical Analysis of Poems


Mental illness is something that many people face, too often do people not get the help they need and it spirals out of control. In the poem Not Waving but Drowning, Stevie Smith portrays strong interpretations of what it is like for this person to struggle. The poem is an insightful representation of someone who shows all the signs of needing help but outsiders are ignorant to the entire situation. It is important to be aware of the people around you and any warning signs that are noticeable. The symptoms of mental illness can be hard to determine but once they are recognized there are an abundance of resources available. Stevie Smith uses symbolism to represent the misconceptions that the general public have for people who struggle with mental illness.

In this poem, Smith is talking about a scene in which someone is drowning. She mixes the point of view in order to show the person's struggles from all stand points. She uses one point of view to explain the entire scenario and what’s happening. She also talks about the people who know him and how they view the situation. Lastly, she shows how the character feels about his death. Smith uses these points of view in a way that entices the reader to want to know the deeper meaning of the poem. Reading the poem briefly, causes there to be little to no meaning in the poem, however it is essential to dissect each line to find the true meaning of what the person is going through.

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Mental illness is something that is not discussed and is very much kept in the dark. In today’s society, more people are being treated for mental illnesses, however it is still seen with a bad stigma. A brief definition of mental illness can be defined as, “... health conditions involving a change in emotion, thinking, or behavior” (Parekh1). Mental illness has the capability to change a person in a way that no one can see as recognizable. This is why mental illness is talked about so negatively. The misinterpretations of mental illness can ruin a person, as well as take their life. A few misunderstandings of people with mental illness include: all mentally ill people are violent and unpredictable, they can't keep a job, they can “get over it”, there is no hope for this condition, these people are crazy. These generalizations can be described as the reason that mentally ill people aren’t treated, or don’t make it out. In this poem, the misconceptions of mental illness lead to the death of the character. The true meaning of the poem represents the struggles the person faces throughout their life and how they choose to cope with it. The signs of this person's suidcide are not apparent to the crowd because the person hides it so well. They know that if they reach out the common thoughts of the general public will overpower anything that the character is struggling with. Being aware of the warning signs that someone is trying to reach out for help is key to saving someone’s life.

Smith uses a plethora amount of literary devices to depict the struggles of mental illness. One strong literary device that she uses is symbolism. Symbolism is “...using symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings different from literal meanings” (Literary Devices). The poem uses symbolism to show the scene from an outside perspective without showing what he is going through. One example of symbolism in this poem is how the character is profusely waving, “… He tried to signal his distress, but the others thought he was waving at them, possibly because they thought of him as a guy who liked to goof around” (Shmoop 1). This interpretation that Shmoop provides shows that when the character is waving he is mistaken for being friendly and cheery. Smith uses this symbolism to show that although someone may be acting as if they are extremely happy and nothing is wrong it very well could be the exact opposite. Smith also shows that it is critical to pay attention to the warning signs because they can be right in front of your face and you don’t even know it. The poem also justifies the idea that the character isn’t acting out, they show this by saying the person is always larking. This shows that the people who know the character don’t know that anything could be different with them even though they’re struggling to survive. In the poem the person who is drowning is struggling to stay afloat, they are waving their arms in order to try to bring themselves above the water. The crowd believes the character is in the water having a good time, waving to everybody they see walk by. Although, this is what was physically happening it is all about the perspective that people have on certain situations. The crowd thinks they know this person for the way they are but they don’t actually have any idea about the mental struggles they are facing. Even when someone is at the brink of death they still could be crying out for help and it goes unnoticed.

Symbolism provides a distraction from what is actually going on. Smith uses symbolism so briefly that the interpretations are endless. Most of the poem is made up of the same words that are using symbolism to show this character's struggles. She briefly describes how even when a person is at their wits end they are still desperately trying to get people to notice their struggles, they are trying to find someone who cares. Caitlin Kimball says, “The first stanza shifts quickly from the event reportage to the interior monologue of the drowned man trying, even in death, to convey to the living his lifetime of desperation” (Kimball 1). The character is so normalized to the reality of their struggles, yet somewhere in them, they find the strength to be able to keep fighting in hopes that someone will notice. From the characters perception they are trying everything they possibly can to stay afloat even though they are on their last string. The crowds point of view is nowhere near what the main character is. This symbolism in this part of the poem talks about how the character is dead and right before that they came to the conclusion that no one was ever going to notice. The crowd, even after his death, blamed it on an outside cause. The stigma for mental illness is so bad that people don’t think it could ever lead to suicide. People never think that mental health is important, or that it could never get as bad as costing someone's life. People view it as being so powerless until it is them who struggles with it. The misapprehension of mental health is astronomical because mental health literally kills human beings, yet the majority of people go on with their day and pass every warning sign up.

Smith figuratively talks about how the person is struggling. The waving of the character symbolizes the desperation the person has, to get help. She shows that throughout the character’s whole they are desperate but they are viewed as being perfectly fine. Smith writes a certain stanza from the poem to show the characters desperation, “I was much too far out all my life, and not waving but drowning” (Smith). She uses this line in the poem to symbolize the isolation this person felt throughout their whole life. Shmoop says, “They’re missing the point because the dead man is trying to tell them it was isolation that really killed him” (Shmoop 1). Being too far out symbolizes how alone the character feels throughout their life. This stanza also talks about how the person is so isolated that they feel as if they could never ask for help. They feel as if things are so bad that they have no opportunity to get help. Not waving but drowning in this point of view represents how the character never took the opportunity to reach out and they just let their life spiral out of control instead. The symbolism in this part of the poem represents how people believe things never get that bad. This misconception is that people are as happy as they seem and that nothing else could possibly go wrong with them. The character feels as if they have so many good things in their life that they can’t let anyone know that there is something mentally wrong. The character reveals that they have been like this their whole life and that is basically why their life was ruined because they felt that they could never get help. Another misunderstanding from a mentally ill persons perspective is that they have all these good things, so life can’t be bad and their feelings will surely go away, but they don't.

Symbolism is strongly used in order to briefly pass by something of deeper meaning. In this poem, the author uses every opportunity to symbolize the misconceptions of mental health. Mental health and suicide is something that isn’t valued the way it should be. The majority of the population brushes off the idea of mental health and the serious side effects of mental illness. Stevie Smith writes about the misunderstanding people have on mental health and why people should become more educated on the subject. Like the person, they thought was so happy but was really dying.

Work Cited

  1. Kimball, Caitlin. “Stevie Smith: ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ by Caitlin Kimball.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,
  2. “Mental Health Myths and Facts.” Mental Health Myths and Facts |,
  3. “Not Waving but Drowning Analysis - Literary Devices and Poetic Devices.” Literary Devices, 8 Apr. 2019,
  4. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Failed Communication in Not Waving but Drowning.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008,
  5. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Life and Death in Not Waving but Drowning.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008,
  6. Smith, Stevie. “Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,
  7. What Is Mental Illness?

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