Summer 2010

The Ethical Dimension of Speech Acts in Lyric Poetry

Stephen W. Gilbert

Universidad de Guadalajara

In recent studies (Kearns,1999; Altieri, 1981; Pratt,1977, 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 (Narrative as Rhetoric, Living to Tell About It), clarify, 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 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.

If acts are always public, they always have an ethical dimension. This requires definitions of three terms: act, public and ethics. Let’s narrow the term “act” to include only speech acts (this for the purposes of exploration of the ethical dimension of poetry). Focus on the speech act also resolves the term “public” to the interlocutors involved in any particular speech act, although it remains complicated in the case of poetry: implied speaker, implied receiver, implied author, implied reader and we’ve got four people at least already involved. Obviously, I am leading up to a definition of ethics that is restricted to relations between interlocutors, participants in a dialogue, and more specifically, between writer and reader.


Specifically, the Williams poem involves the poet and his reader, as well as a man and his wife.  It is entirely possible to treat these as two separate rhetorical situations, and equally possible to read one rhetorical situation as containing the other.  Altieri, I think, imagines the rhetorical situation between man and wife as contained in the poet/reader relationship.  It is just as easy to turn that containment inside out, reading the poet/reader relationship as contained by the rhetorical relationship between the man and his wife.

Charles Altieri, in Act and Quality, refers frequently to the need for a theory of action. I take this to indicate his commitment to an ethics. At any rate, he offers at one point a definition of “performance” when speaking of freedom in Milton as a performance of the self before God. “By performance I mean the self-conscious presentation of self in an act so that its qualities might be assessed in relation to the situation and the laws or procedures appropriate to that situation.” Later he recognizes that “...without God, or even a very coherent culture, Williams must root the terms for mutual recognition of actions in frail domestic contexts.” (174-5) Within this context, I suggest that in our poem Williams presents himself self-consciously as a poet to comply with the obligations that the immediate domestic context place upon him.  Whether by accident or design, the violation of the domestic order has called from Williams a performance of a public act: the writing of a poem. 

Just sayings are not just sayings but doings. What matters is what one can perform himself as, and that depends in large part on what he trusts his audience to be able to discern.” (Altieri, 174). In the Williams poem it is quite common to read the performance of two selves, one a poet performing himself as a poet for a reader, and one a husband performing himself as a repentant thief for his wife. But working through a speech act theoretical reading of the poem might find Williams performing himself uniquely, as one actor, without any duplicity, engaged in a most complex ethical act that is not only the creation of a poem, but an honest apology to his wife as well. If what an audience discerns is a poet who has turned a note for his wife into a poem, that audience has every right to doubt the sincerity of the apology. And if his wife discerns, or discovers later, that the note is or has become a poem, she might doubt its sincerity as well.

Mutual understanding is not an easy social ideal but a condition gained by careful and concerned performance of the self.” … Because an author recognizes how fully performance relies upon and elicits the implicit grounds of grammatical competence which serve as the foundation for achievable and achieved meanings (Altieri, 175). The theory of speech acts, at least in Austin, has implications that go far beyond grammar.  We often forget that after all, Austin held a chair in moral philosophy at Oxford. And the grounds for recognition of illocutionary force are not only grammatical competence but moral and ethical perspective.

In a situation like the one presented to a reader in "This is Just to Say," we inevitably face, and solve (no matter how intuitively) the  interesting  problem having to define a notoriously flexible term like "literature." Altieri's views on the problem come directly from his reading of the later Wittgenstein, and are recognizable to anyone familiar with the basic literature of pragmatics:  “…the only alternative that remains is a view of definition as capturing not the properties of objects but the expectations or terms of competence that are brought into play when someone uses a term like literature or one of its correlates.  I find it kind of wonderful that many of us, on meeting the poem for the first time exclaim to ourselves, or to other readers, "Oh! It's a note to his wife!"  And later, imagine his wife finding the note and exclaiming to herself, "Oh! It's a poem!" (Depending on her mood, of course. She could just as easily exclaim to herself something like, "I suppose he thinks another damned poem will get him off the hook for leaving me without plums for breakfast.")

Enough preliminary, let's have 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 help 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, at least for his purposes. Williams' poem presents an interesting case in point. Austin famously suggests that when the poet (Austin's example comes from Donne) says “Go and catch a falling star,” he doesn't really mean that we should go and catch a falling star. More recent speech act theorists, more willing to work with literarary texts than Austin was, have asked the very reasonable question, “What if the poet means exactly what he says?” In what sense does the poet expect us to respond to his instruction? This perhaps leads us away from the poem at hand, but at least indicates that certain readings of certain poems will result from the (admittedly odd) willingness to take them seriously.

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 is interestingly arguable. Theories of apology exist in various texts in the areas of discourse analysis and pragmatics. Standard descriptions of the speech act of apology normally include, among other things, recognition of damage caused or harm done, followed by expressions of regret or offers to repair the damage and promises of forebearance in the future.. An explanation of how the damage came about are an optional (interesting but never necessary) component of an apology.

The order of the utterances that constitute the apology in our poem 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. (It took me a long time to realize that "Sunday Morning" describes what kind of complacencies we´re considering in that poem.  Lots of poems have titles which are in fact first lines; others just have titles.)  The return to the title of William's poem has a very precise function, theorized in the discipline of pragmatics as disambiguation. While we may have read the word “just” in the title in accord with what appears to be the plain speech of the rest of the poem, that is as similar to other collocations like “I only wanted to say...” and the like, it is possible, although at first glance somewhat forced, to read the word “just” in keeping with its legal or ethical connotations. These connotations call to the fore the apology aspect of the poem which may have been passed lightly over in previous readings.

There exist parodies of the poem. Here are a few, by the poet Kenneth Koch. Once you get the hang of it, you can easily make up another one on your own:

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

 I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
 I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
 and its wooden beams were so inviting.

 We laughed at the hollyhocks together
 and then I sprayed them with lye.
 Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

 I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
 next ten years.
 The man who asked for it was shabby
 and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

 Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
 Forgive me. I was clumsy and
 I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
                                            Kenneth Koch

The next one comes from a student blog on the internet. And is a strict parody, following the structure and order of the original quite closely.

This is Just to Say

I have withdrawn

all the money

that was in

our joint account

and which

you were probably


for your operation

Forgive me

there were so many zeroes

so perfect

and so round.


We might consider these parodies as student exercises in reading, as I rather suspect that Kenneth Koch does in his “Variations on a Theme.” We might also make use of them in some kind of theory of parody. What I find interesting is the cruelty that seems to surface, especially in our second example.

If we first read the poem under the instruction of the second generation New Critics (as I did as a youngster), 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)? There was no room in those classrooms (at least as I remember them) for discussions of Williams' relation with his wife, whether he was really sorry, or whether the nature of apology had any relevance. It seems to me now that our recognition that the poem was, in some form at least, a note to his wife was almost a secret. Later, we read the poem in some imagined social context, thinking perhaps of his wife asleep upstairs, unaware that her plans for breakfast have gone awry, and Williams in the kitchen downstairs agonizing (or not) over the appropriate response to his crime. In the postmodern mode, Charles Altieri seems to distinguish the poem from the note, and almost condemns the poet for publishing, thereby distorting the ethical relations the note may have had in its "original" form.

But what if Williams left his wife a poem? Returning to common understandings of apologies in discourse analysis, we recall that one option a speaker has, who has caused some inconvenience or done some damage, is the offer to repair the damage, perhaps replace something broken. The first time I met this poem, I imagined a smallish piece of paper, perhaps attached to the refrigerator, or left on the kitchen table. But now I like to think of the poem, still on a smallish piece of paper, perhaps stained with plum juice, left on the saucer that Williams took from the refrigerator. He has replaced the saucer in the refrigerator, and in place of the plums has left a poem. He knows it's a poem; he knows it's a good one. He even knows he'll publish it. And he leaves it as a gift. And as a gift and as a replacement for the stolen plums, it completes the apology.


Austin, J.L. (1962), How To Do Things With Words, Oxford: Clarendon.

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, Indiana University Press.

Schiffrin, D., Deborah Tannen, & Hamilton, H. E. (eds.). (2001), Handbook of Discourse Analysis, Oxford: Blackwell.

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson, (1995) Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Second Edition, Blackwell.

Williams, William Carlos (1991),  The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, New Directions.


Summer 2010