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
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).
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.
the other passenger in the death wagon, is viewed by Winters as merely an
abstraction used loosely and indefinably.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
did not do (nor did she probably intend to do) in the first place.
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.
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
Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960, 243.
Griffith, Clark. The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’
s Tragic Poetry. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1964, 130.
6 Anderson, 243.
7 Ibid., 246.
9 Anderson, 245.
10 Griffith, 133.
11 Ibid., 133.
12 Ibid., 132.
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.
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
and Literature, Ed. Teun A. van Dijk, North Holland Publishing
Winters, Yvor. “Emily
Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment,” In
Reason. Denver: Alan Swallow,