Dickinson’s Carriage Ride: Early Critical Views and Speech Act Theory


          Of all of Emily Dickinson’s poems treating the subject of death or dying, none has elicited the number of critical responses as “The Chariot” or “Because I could not stop for Death.” Expectedly, disagreement exists among early critics who have explicated the poem. However, even though they acknowledge numerous possibilities for interpretation, none seems to have considered speech act theory and its possible advantages in judging what the poet is actually “doing” in the poem. Those who have tried to give a solid explanation have done so either by using an intuitive process, by studying the language forms, by making assumptions about Dickinson’s life and character, or by using a combination of these various elements.

          Yvor Winters, in his book In Defense of Reason (1947), makes early remarks about the poem that set off a barrage of critical rebuff in the succeeding years. His general statements aroused both heated debate and genteel antagonism toward his assumed position. At one point, he calls the piece “a remarkably beautiful poem on the subject of the daily realization of the imminence of death” (1). With this, no one disagrees. The problem comes, however, when Winters insists that the poem ends “unconvincingly.” He grants that the piece is successful insofar as it “concentrates on the life that is being left behind,” but where it attempts to deal with or “experience the death to come, it is fraudulent” (2). He asserts that Dickinson’s final statement is not offered seriously and that it should not be taken seriously as a valid conclusion. His last comment on the subject is often quoted by other critics. He says, “It is possible to solve any problem of insoluble experience by retreating a step and defining the boundary at which comprehension ceases, and by then making the necessary moral adjustments to that boundary; this in itself is an experience both final and serious, and it is the experience on which our author’s [Dickinson’s] finest work is based” (3).

          It is important to keep Winters’ charge of “fraudulence” in mind while viewing the interpretations of critics Charles R. Anderson (1960) and Clark Griffith (1964). Both disagree strongly with Winters’ view of the ending of the poem. They also disagree with each other about some of the major ideas in the work. The first obvious clash comes in the characterization of Death as personified in the first two stanzas. Anderson sees Death as a kind, compassionate gentleman suitor who drives the carriage while serving the ends of the stronger figure, Immortality. Thus, the expected revulsion to the spectacle of a hearse (carriage) is mitigated by Death’s magnificent “civility.” Anderson maintains that the suitor image is not important, however, because Dickinson underplays it and then drops it altogether after the second stanza. For some reason, the romantic image falters, even though the recently restored fourth stanza alludes perhaps to a bridal garment. Anderson suggests that Dickinson’s own experience may have suggested the idea to her but that she dropped it suddenly without developing it. The reason for this is pure speculation, and no one wishes to venture a guess as to why.

          Immortality, the other passenger in the death wagon, is viewed by Winters as merely an abstraction used loosely and indefinably.  Anderson suggests, however, that Immortality as a co-passenger relieves the loneliness inherent in a ride of this nature. The implicit question here is that if Death were indeed a gentleman caller, why would one be lonely? Anderson also argues that Dickinson’s depiction of Immortality supports the concept of the separateness of the soul from the body.

          In contrast, Clark Griffith gives two alternate readings of the initial narrative situation in the first two stanzas. He explains that there are, in fact, two callers, both of whom serve specific functions. The image of the carriage ride is entirely appropriate according to Griffith. He reminds us that Dickinson was certainly aware of 19th-century “courtly love” conventions, either first-hand or by observation. He also believes that the abundance of 18th- and 19th-century novels were possible sources for the idea. He supports the matrimonial undercurrent of the poem, but he does not draw any conclusions beyond that. He takes Dickinson’s words at face value—Death is courtly, well mannered, kind, and civil. The journey to the bridal room would then be a pleasant interlude with a relaxed tone and a calm acceptance of one’s fate. Immortality serves as a benevolent chaperone who sanctifies the relationship along orthodox societal lines.

          On the other hand, based on these same 18th- and 19th-century romantic novels, Griffith suggests that oftentimes, a caller who initially passes for a well-meaning courtly gentleman is, in actuality, a depraved, malevolent nature who conspires to seduce a young maiden with his wiles and evil inventions. In this case, both Death and Immortality are ultimate deceivers of the innocent. Depending on one’s view of the intentions of the two, this might address the indeterminate ending of the poem where Dickinson declines to state her final destination but leaves the persona traveling “toward Eternity.” Griffith hesitates to commit himself here as to which view is more probable. Sadly, this fence riding is common within much of modern criticism. Critics often seem more interested in protecting themselves from attack than they are in boldly and unequivocally interpreting works.

          When one looks closely at the first two stanzas, one is tempted to shout down the depraved seducer theory in toto. Nothing in the actual words themselves or in the Death/carriage driver metaphor suggests the least bit of malevolence. Dickinson’s words, such as “kindly” and “civility” suggest no undercurrent of evil, nor does the diction in subsequent stanzas. Because Dickinson drops the image after the first eight lines, Griffith’s negative interpretation seems improbable. The persona would not have voluntarily stopped her normal activities to accommodate Death; however, she is gently compelled to accept the invitation. One can easily understand putting away “labor,” but she gives up her “leisure” as well for his “civility.” Fear seems completely absent from the situation.

          As the final ride continues, Anderson suggests that the alliteration of “labor” and “leisure” quickens the pace of the poem as the forward motion surges into the third stanza. The insistent reiteration of the word “passed” also speeds up “the sound pattern, taking on a kind on inevitability” (4). Here, too, according to Anderson, the poem achieves a certain objectivity. The passenger is looking out the carriage window and is merely reporting her observations. Griffith sees this stanza as one of leaving life behind. He says, “It disappears behind her like a receding landscape” (5).

          Both Anderson and Griffith pay much attention to Dickinson’s diction in this stanza. One interesting disagreement between them centers on the interpretation of the phrase “Gazing Grain.” Griffith sees “warmth and vitality” in it, whereas Anderson calls it a “maneuver in grammar [that] creates an involute paradox, giving the fixity of death to the living corn” (6). Both views include connotations and implications that do not necessarily reside in the words themselves, and neither view seems credible beyond reasonable doubt. The word, “gazing,” which seems passive, detached, and even indifferent,  suggests little warmth and no real vitality. Likewise, if it is understood as a death stare, Dickinson could have chosen a stronger word to suggest the death of nature. Rather, it seems to be little more than slight personification.

          The verbals in stanza three—children striving and grain gazing—are interesting choices. The first is active and the second more passive, but both activities seem indifferent to the passing of the carriage. Griffith feels that from this point on in the poem, Dickinson’s images become vaguer. Instead, it might be that the poet shifts to a different kind of image. The images “quivering and chill,” “gossamer,” “tulle,” and “a swelling of the ground” are vivid enough, but they shift from a panoramic view to a more specific, personal one.

          Anderson makes much ado about the gown and scarf of the persona in stanza four. He sees the flimsy gown as a bridal dress and the tippet (though defined usually as “any cape or scarf”) as a covering worn by many holy orders. This, to Anderson, implies a celestial marriage, with Death acting as the surrogate groom for the persona’s impending union with God (though God is never mentioned anywhere in the poem). Anderson seems to be imposing an orthodox Christian interpretation on the poem, which may be straining a bit. He concedes that “the whole idea of the Bride-of-the-Lamb is admittedly only latent in the text of this poem, but in view of the body of her writings it seems admissible to suggest it as another metaphor for the extension of meaning” (7). This biographical-contextual approach may be on shaky ground in that as far as we can determine, Dickinson never converted to Christianity even though she was completely immersed in the cultural ambiance of New England Calvinist theology. If the poem’s persona is not Dickinson, the idea has more merit, but it is impossible to defend this view based solely on the text.

          With the concluding two stanzas of the poem, the critical fur becomes airborne as the three critics supply a plethora of possibilities to explain the poem’s conclusion. Although each of the three writers seems dissatisfied both with the poem’s ending and with his own ultimate explanation of it, no one seems to be able to pinpoint the problem. At no time does speech act theory overtly influence their discussions; however, their arguments are viable in light of what Dickinson is actually “doing” in the poem. Applying basic principles of speech act theory to the work alleviates some of the interpretation problem and sheds further light on the poet’s dilemma in her treatment of the process or experience of death.

          First, Winters describes the poem as an intensely conscious leave-taking of life. He argues, however, that Dickinson treats her material with a “semi-playful pretense of familiarity with the posthumous experience of eternity, so that the poem ends unconvincingly though gracefully” (8). To praise a poem for a statement not offered seriously, Winters feels is “unsound criticism.” In his view, Dickinson should have stopped writing before she got to the part about eternity because she obviously had no knowledge of it, presumably being alive at the time of the writing. Thus, he concludes, the part of the poem that attempts to deal with death and subsequent eternity is inherently “fraudulent.”

           Unwittingly perhaps, Winters has stumbled onto something in his brief analysis that the other two critics have failed to perceive in their visceral reactions to Winters’ charge of fraudulence. Anderson quickly jumps on Winters’ statement and, with some degree of insight, argues for Dickinson’s attempt by explaining that she has not purported to present any knowledge from beyond the grave because she clearly could not do so while still alive. This comment, though it does not attribute its rationale to an understanding of poetic speech acts, shows an awareness of the limitations of the poetic form in dealing with such incomprehensible subjects as death, eternity, and so forth. To Winters’ charge of fraudulence, Anderson counter-charges that “in addition to being a hyper-rational criticism, this is simply a failure to read the text. The poem does not strive for the incomprehensible. It deals with the daily realization of the imminence of death [taken right from Winters’ own text] . . . These are intensely felt, but only as ideas, as the abstractions of time and eternity, not as something experienced” (9).

          Anderson further suggests that the final stanza is not an attempt to posit knowledge beyond life or the grave, but is simply “the most fitting coda” for the poem. Dickinson does this, he explains, by concentrating on fewer and fewer visible objects, finally focusing on a single image—the horses’ heads. Death, one supposes, is still in the driver’s seat because the ride is still in progress and does not end within the context of the poem. Thus, Dickinson works around the obvious limitation of being unable to discuss an experience that she has not yet encountered.

          The poem itself gives clues that the persona is still bound by the temporal. She remarks that it has been “Centuries,” yet it feels “shorter than the Day.” These finite measurements reveal that Dickinson is still within the limits of her human consciousness. Anderson suggests that the verb “surmised” indicates a mental journey or an imagined state rather than a literal one. Because she never reaches the logical end of her journey, Anderson sees Winters’ charge of fraudulence as inappropriate and invalid.

          On the other hand, Griffith, in his negative reaction to Winters' ideas, claims that the poem is not ultimately about the afterlife at all. He calls Winters’ premises “inaccurate. It is not really a poem about the topography of the ‘undiscovered country.’ It is, rather, Emily Dickinson’s legitimate attempt to imagine the death which she knows must come to her and to spell out her responses to this inevitable experience” (10). The confusion about the poem’s ending, Griffith explains, is due not to “the fact that we have crossed a ‘boundary’ and are walking where no mortal has the right or (as yet) the knowledge to tread. Instead, the irresolution comes about because . . . she cannot honestly make up her mind about what her feelings and her attitudes are” (11).

          According to Griffith, the crossing over from earthly (known) images to “otherness” (unknown) images accounts for Dickinson’s obscurity and mysteriousness in the final two stanzas. Even between the two alternate possibilities of Death as either Good Guy or Bad Guy, Griffith sees Dickinson pausing, unable to decide how she views him. “She leaves open and unresolved the question of which set is really the more applicable to the poem” (12). What Dickinson is trying to do, says Griffith, is to objectify death and to transfix it at the very point of striking, to imaginatively construct her own death, or to catch herself at the very act of dying. This, he feels, is one of Dickinson’s unique abilities, and he believes that she succeeds in doing it in “The Chariot.”

          An application of principles of speech act theory sheds light on areas of contention among the critics regarding the relative success or failure of the poem. In the sense that a poem violates the conventions of “normal” speech, one needs first to view the poem as a “speech act” which imitates or pretends a certain validity in order to be accepted or understood as legitimate. The poet, in effect, cooperates with the reader in setting up the established limits of assumption and credibility (i.e., she creates a persona to relate the ideas of the poem to the reader; she constructs a setting and an occasion; and so on).

          If one were to follow Samuel R. Levin’s suggestion that a poem begin with the unstated, yet understood, assumption, “I imagine myself in and invite you to conceive a world in which . . .” (13), one could easily begin with the first line of Dickinson’s poem with no continuity problem. This “willing suspension of disbelief” eliminates questions of probability, biographical norms, or validity to external reality, concentrating instead in an imaginary construct within which the poet works out her ideas and relationships. According to speech act theorists, only when one understands the boundaries of a poem can one address the work intelligently.

          The Dickinson poem, if approached from this perspective, easily follows the speech act formula described by Levin and others. One can almost hear Dickinson as she invites us to conceive with her a world in which “because [she] could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for [her].” She asks us to speculate, as she does herself, what might occur if Death should happen to call for her in the midst of her routine daily tasks. Beginning with the word “because,” the poem implies an explanation or apology for the situation into which she imagines herself drawn.

          The first two stanzas delimit and illuminate the carriage’s principals and their ambiance, suggest the character of the driver, and describe the method of travel. The tone of her explanation seems calm and matter-of-fact, revealing none of the undercurrent of fear that Griffith proposes with his malevolent suitor theory. No terror is evident in her tone, although many argue that it is “felt” underneath her words. Perhaps the seeming detachment of the poet-persona strikes a tone of terror for some, but one might question, “How does one deal with the phenomenon of death except from a detached perspective?” The emotional distance or attempt at objectivity here is a fitting way to deal with the subject of one’s own death because one cannot both experience it and write about it simultaneously—nor can one experience it vicariously.

          The leaving of life in stanza three seems objective as well, as indicated earlier. The poem provides a catalog of images—youth to maturity, morning to evening—in cyclic fashion almost as people supposedly view their lives passing before them just before they drown or approach violent death. The movement of passing through life gives the journey metaphor credibility to this point in the poem. With stanza four, however, the sun now does the passing, and the poet-persona finds herself once again within temporal limits. At this point, Dickinson comes back to earthly reality. Instead of traveling past the sun, she realizes that to be accurate in describing what she imagines within the temporal mode, she must stop and leave the rest of the journey uncharted. The chill of the dew and her insubstantial clothing remind her, perhaps, of the starkness of her situation seen from an earthly perspective.

          The fifth stanza carries the image to its conclusion, or as far as Dickinson can go with it and still have the poem retain its moral validity, as Winters indicates a poet must do. Dickinson does draw back from trying to transport herself into the non-temporal. Rather than being “fraudulent,” the ending admits that she can go no further with her narrative. Winters, in misunderstanding the ending of the piece, has shot his arrows at something which Dickinson did not do (nor did she probably intend to do) in the first place.

          Both Anderson and Griffith, in debunking Winter’s comments about the final stanza, have perhaps inadvertently stumbled (or perhaps wisely perceived) what Dickinson is trying to do in the poem, and they praise her for the very thing that Winters criticizes her for not doing. The last stanza provides us with several clues to the whole question of the poet’s conclusion on the matter. She begins by saying, “Since then. . . .” This suggests a time shift, yet its limits are unstated in human terms. No human being can comprehend a period consisting of “centuries” which feel “shorter than the Day.” The breakdown of the imagery here is obvious. One cannot explain the feeling of eternity in temporal terms because Dickinson (nor anyone else) has any knowledge of it. Nor does she pretend that she does, notwithstanding Winters’ claims.

          The final verb “surmised” is the strongest clue to Dickinson’s apparent motive in ending the poem the way she does. “Surmised” is not a strong, definite action; rather it suggests insubstantial evidence, a guess, an inference. Synonyms include “suppose,” “assume,” “conjecture.” This invalidates Winters’ assertion that Dickinson proposes to tell us what eternity is like. All she can do, as she realizes, is to point herself “toward” the great event. This decision preserves the validity of the piece, as Anderson and Griffith maintain and as speech act theory also supports. Given the choice of this subject, it seems that Dickinson has done all that any poet can do.



1  Winters, Yvor.  “Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment,” In Defense of

          Reason. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947, 289.

2  Ibid., 289.

3  Ibid., 290. 

4  Anderson, Charles R.  Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New           York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960, 243.

5  Griffith, Clark.  The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’ s Tragic Poetry. Princeton:

          Princeton University Press, 1964, 130.

6  Anderson, 243.

7  Ibid., 246.

8  Winters, 289.

9  Anderson, 245.

10  Griffith, 133.

11  Ibid., 133.

12  Ibid., 132.

13  Levin, Samuel R.  “Concerning What Kind of Speech Act a Poem Is,”           Pragmatics   of Language and Literature, Ed. Teun A. van Dijk, North           Holland Publishing Co., 1976, 150.



Works Cited

Anderson, Charles R.  Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York:

          Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Griffith, Clark.  The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’ s Tragic Poetry. Princeton:

          Princeton University Press, 1964.

Levin, Samuel R.  “Concerning What Kind of Speech Act a Poem Is,” Pragmatics

          of Language and Literature, Ed. Teun A. van Dijk, North Holland       Publishing Co., 1976.

Winters, Yvor.  “Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment,” In Defense of

          Reason. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947.