Sincronía Summer 2007

The Ethical Dimension of Speech Acts in Lyric Poetry

Stephen W. Gilbert

Letras, Universidad de Guadalajara

    In recent studies (Kearns,1999;  Altieri, whatsername, among others) both narrative and lyric discourse have been read through J.L. Austin's speech act theory.  James Phelan's various reworkings and expansions of Wayne Booth's narrative theory (titles) clarifies, I think, the advantage of establishing a rhetorical situation before examining the nature of the kinds of speech acts we find in these texts. I'd like to incorporate some of the observations, terms and methods that these authors have proposed First off, I'd like to pick up on a discussion that Altieri began in Act and Quality in (date) and see what happens to our reading of William Carlos Williams' "This is just to say"  when we posit (at least) two rhetorical relations established by the poem. These relations are not at all ignored by Altieri, but his explorations of the text are motivated principally by his philosophical concerns.  In my reading of his text, he is looking for a philosophy of action that will answer some of the challenges from deconstruction that seemed to be overwhelming academic discourse at the time.  Now that the dust of that battle has settled, at least somewhat, we might pick up some of the pieces to see what value they still have.  But first, the text.

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Altieri notes that readers will return to the title, to reconsider the justice of the saying.  Not only in terms of the act of apology, but to question the right with which Williams turns a note to his wife into a published poem.  These are questions that would not have concerned readers unfamiliar with Austin.  By isolating the speech act of apology which is in the poem, a reader necessarily constructs to two immediate participants of that act: the speaker who apologizes and his interlocutor.   I have always imagined this poem as a written document from the beginning.   That is, the poem is not a later report or transcript of a conversation.  This is the result of a  particular reading of the word "This" in the title as a reference to the note itself. It is a usage typical of letters as well as inter-office memos.

Phelan's contributions to recent narrative theory helps out by making explicit the various participants in the (inevitable) doubleness of written versions of narrated stories: the character narrator and his interlocutor (narratee) and the author and his reader.  These communicative pairs are also present in the Williams poem. 

I have found it pleasant (and convenient) to imagine Williams in the kitchen of his farmhouse, at night, having eaten the plums which he found in the refrigerator.   Whether taken by a  sudden sensation of guilt, or for the mere pleasure of writing a short note to his wife accepting responsibility for the missing plums, he writes out what appears to him, almost in the very moment of composition, to be an almost perfect poem.  What is he to do?  This is an ethical question, but only of a secondary order, at least according to speech act theory. In what follows, I will distinguish between the two speakers that we can locate in the text as husband and poet.  The husband's speech act has certain qualities.  The poet's speech act has others.

       In speech act theory, as is well known, literary discourse is left consciously out of the discussion, for various reasons.  It is sufficient to recall Austin's characterization of literary language as "non-serious" and to take his characterization seriously.  Williams' poem presents an interesting case in point.  If the husband's apology (written or otherwise) to his wife is serious, it has an ethical dimension that can be analyzed, even unto considerations of style which might normally be considered the domain of literary criticism.  That is, is the quality of the apology sufficient, both in content and style, to meet the requirements of a felicitous act, in Austin's terms?.  This interestingly arguable. Theories of apology exist in various texts in the areas of discourse analysis and pragmatics.  (Look in the library at Lenguas Modernas for the Discourse Analysis Text I used a long time ago.)

        The order of the utterances that constitute the apology is as follows:  the husband takes responsability for eating the plums; he recognizes the damage this has caused his wife (she was probably saving them for breakfast); the third stanza combines (and appears to  conflate) two utterances: the formal petition for forgiveness, and the (post-hoc) justification for the act.

        It has been said that Williams was not a particularly conscientious husband.  One might offer this poem as proof. 

        At some point a reader returns to the title of a poem.  This occurs at various times in the course of reading.  At times it is simply a momentary recall and a re-imagining of the significance of the title at a particular moment of reading.  At times it occurs years later as a revelation.   The return to the title of William's poem has a very precise function, theorized in the discipline of pragmatics as disambiguation. (See particularly Sperber and Wilson.)


Don't forget the various parodies. (I have withdrawn all the money from our joint checking account...) Ask what they tell us: both about the poem and about parody.


If we first read the poem under the instruction of the second generation New Critics, as a formalist excercise, what did we read (and what did we do with the "knowledge" that this was a note he had left his wife)?  Later, we read the poem in its social context, thinking perhaps of his wife asleep upstairs.  Altieri seems to distinguish the poem from the note, and almost condemn the poet for publishing, thereby distorting the ethical relations the note may have had in its "original" form. 

What if Williams left his wife a poem? (look for the quote from Nabokov, regarding the "local palliative of art.")







Kearns, Michael (1999), Rhetorical Narratology, University of Nebraska.

Altieri, Charles (1981), Act and Quality: A Theory of Literary Meaning and Humanistic Understanding, University of Massachusetts Press

Pratt, Mary Louise (1977), Towards a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse, University of