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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Close Reading of a Dickinson Poem

This essay was written as an assignment for the Coursera.com free online course, "Modern and Contemporary Poetry," taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. I did not ascribe a meta-poetic interpretation to the poem--I steadfastly and rather grumpily resisted one--on the grounds that it read best to me as a nature poem. But after many more weeks of studying, I warmed up to the meta-poetic view and now do believe, along with some thousands of my classmates, that Emily's euphoria arose not so much with the sun as with her powerful experience of writing about it.

I taste a liquor never brewed (214)

by Emily Dickinson

I taste a liquor never brewed – 
From Tankards scooped in Pearl – 
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I – 
And Debauchee of Dew – 
Reeling – thro' endless summer days – 
From inns of molten Blue – 

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door – 
When Butterflies – renounce their "drams" – 
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats – 
And Saints – to windows run – 
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!
When we face a poem whose vocabulary announces it to be about Nature, it doesn't immediately quicken our pulses. Sky, sun, clouds and dew are familiar to us and generally tame; we think of them, if at all, as unobtrusive backgrounds to more interesting activities. If--fleetingly--they are sublime and we notice them as being sublime, they make us feel....what? We don't know, and can't say. Then the glorious sunrise or "l'heure bleu" is quickly over and we've moved on.  So when we approach Emily Dickinson's “I taste a liquor never brewed,” one of the things we want to see is how she overcomes our sluggishness: how she will reveal--in often drearily-ordinary things--extra-ordinary attractions and sensations to charm and dazzle us.


One of her strategies is to keep the poem short. Here we have just sixteen lines, divided into four verses of four lines each--inviting rather than daunting.

The rhyme scheme is ABCB, but in addition to the rhyming end-words she also makes artful, careful use of repeated sounds and partial rhymes. These are pleasing to the ear and help knit the poem's lines together.

The form used is the Ballad, four verses of iambic tetrameter. It was very familiar to Dickinson from church services, but she uses this hymn-like structure to hold ideas that are not typical of traditional sacred music.

One might think of Emily Dickinson as writing her own private hymnal, an alternative book of self-sacred songs for her own kind of praise and meditation. That may be why she numbered them as hymns in a hymn book are numbered, rather than titling them. She invites the reader to meditate with her.

Conceit of “I taste a Liquor never brewed”

The fresh approach Dickinson offers us in this poem is the conceit or extended metaphor that the “I” or Speaker is so exquisitely sensitive to nature that it has the effect of liquor on her; while others would merely feel mildly pleased by morning twilight, she is inebriated by it. And she asserts that this is extraordinary behavior which supernatural beings (seraphs and saints) will want to see —or else she will drink and drink until they do come to see and salute her.


As is typical with Dickinson’ poetry, “Liquor” is punctuated mostly with dashes. Is this also one of her strategies to pull readers into the poem? It may do so by creating ambiguities or double-meanings to intrigue readers; by provoking them to explore the dashes' effect by reading the poem aloud; and by heightening the effect of other punctuation marks when they appear. In other words, the two exclamation points in this poem are all the more exclamatory for being so stark among the dashes; likewise the quotation marks draw attention to themselves as doubly intentional and meaningful. As the little tippler begins to lurch and stagger, so do the dashes.

First Verse

The speaker piques our interest by telling of a mysterious mixture she drinks, comparable to none other in the world we know.
I taste a liquor never brewed -- If brewing is of nature, natural, then this liquor could be supernatural,  unnatural, extra-natural or maybe hyper-natural. Like the Biblical “city not made with hands” it exists, but owes nothing to human effort for its existence.
From Tankards scooped in Pearl -- Like a head of froth on beer,  pearly clouds are scooped up in a rounded shape on top of her tankard.
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine -- On the famous German river, these could be wooden vats for wine or copper vats for beer. Probably beer is the drink she’s suggesting: beer is drunk from tankards, in long, thirsty drafts, as she does the air--not little sips from small glasses. Also, beer is the beverage that would have a “scoop of pearl” or head of froth on the top.
Yield such an Alcohol! -- Alcohol is maybe not a very poetic word. It sounds rather scientific to the ear; under normal conditions it would be clinker of a word. Yet somehow in this poem we glide right over it, perhaps because she has prepared us for it so well with "liquor," "vat," and "tankards."

Repeated sounds and partial rhymes: liquor/never; scooped/brewed; |k| in tankard/scooped; |t| in taste/tankard/scooped; pearl/alcohol.

Second Verse

The effect of this heady mixture of early-morning air and dew is to make the poet feel elevated, exultant, exhilarated, glorified.
Inebriate of Air -- am I – “Inebriate” is a Synonym for “drunk.” Now we find out what is inside the tankard with the scoop of pearl on top--it's air. The line invites one to imagine what kind of air could inebriate a person—sweet, pungent, aromatic, delicious, faintly spicy, pure, 100-proof!
And Debauchee of Dew -- A debauchee is a person who habitually indulges in debauchery or dissipation--in this case, drunkeness. If she is debauching on “Dew,” she does it in the early morning. Ordinary drunks are up late, but this one is up early.
Reeling -- thro endless summer days – “Reeling” denotes a lurching walk, as a drunk would do. “Endless summer days” evokes joy: eternal heaven, a permanent state of bliss. There’s no need to beware of inclement weather, and the drunkard’s hangover or DT’s or offensive behavior are not to be thought of. With this liquor, one can be drunk every day, with each day as beautiful as the last.
From inns of Molten Blue -- An inn is a place a drunkard may drink. For the speaker, it’s the sky, but more than the sky. She offers us a super-charged new word describing the intense blue of the twilight sky. “Molten” is not an adjective we’d normally choose for blue—red or yellow like glowing lava is more “molten.” But by giving us “molten blue,” she is asking us to imagine a blue so charged and intense that pigment could never reproduce it. There must be a powerful erupting volcano nearby to produce it, and so there is—the sun. There are many such molten-blue inns--perhaps different vantage points from which she views the sky?--and she reels drunkenly from one to the next.

Repeated sounds and partial rhymes: long |e| in inebriate/debauchee/reeling; |n| in endless/inns/molten; |u| in dew/thro/blue; |d| in debauchee/dew/endless/days; dew/blue.

Third Verse

Even if other creatures should cease feeding on nature's elixirs, the Speaker never will.
When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee In quotes, “landlords” become imaginary miniature proprietors of the Foxglove Inn where bees drink nectar. Possibly Dickinson believes that without quote marks around “landlords,” we will float past her intended idea and light instead on the image of human landlords waving bees away, which she does not want.
Out of the Foxglove's door -- The image of Bees getting ejected by miniature bar bouncers is rather comical. Foxgloves are tall, elegant flowers. Only bees may sup there indiscriminately: foxgloves produce digitalis which can be, like alcohol, medicinal up to a point but poisonous beyond it.
When Butterflies -- renounce their "drams" – Drams are small drinks of whiskey or other spirits. Dickinson was an acute observer of nature: she knew that butterflies also live on liquids—not only nectar from flowers, but also tree sap, rotting fruit, etc. (http://www.kidsbutterfly.org/faq/behavior/3) If butterflies renounce their “drams”—if they swear off nectar and “wine”—they will die. Does the Speaker feel that neither could she live, if this kind of drinking were denied her?
I shall but drink the more! Dickinson uses “when” clauses here, but they can be understood as “if” clauses—“if” in the sense of “not at all likely.” It calls to mind e e cummings’ usage in “when serpents bargain for the right to squirm.” Even if bees and butterflies should cease drinking their nectar, I shall drink more than I did before!

Repeated sounds and partial rhymes: |n| in landlords/turn/drunken; |s| in foxglove’s/ butterflies/renounce/drams; door/more.

Fourth Verse

One effect of the Speaker's inebriation is elevation--she rises to inhabit the sky with angels, saints, and the sun. The heavens she has feasted on have taken her up.
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats -- This is a difficult line. Seraphs are angels; while they are sometimes depicted with halos, angels are not widely known to wear hats.* “Snowy” is often found in religious texts to mean pure, white, or clean—surely an appropriate kind of hat for angels to swing, given that they have one. Swinging a hat seems like a joyful, ebullient gesture—a celebratory salute to the tippler, perhaps.
And Saints -- to windows run -- The references to seraphs and saints may be intended as a slight jab at the church-goers who listen to hymns with traditional lyrics. In other words, the sitters in pews may think they are the holy ones, and that the Speaker over-imbibing celestial air is a sinner; yet she claims that the true heavenly holy ones—seraphs and saints—will be interested in and exultant about her activity rather than theirs; they will run to the windows of heaven to view it.
To see the little Tippler “Tippler” is the “I” or speaker of the poem, “tippling” being another synonym for drinking alcohol.
Leaning against the -- Sun -- The speaker of the poem has drunk and drunk and is no longer capable of reeling, as she was in verse 2—now she must simply lean for support on the sun. In the mind’s eye, the two are not disproportional: the creature who sups like birds and butterflies on the morning air is perceived to be a fair size for leaning against the sun as it peers, along with the seraphs and saints, over the horizon at her. The dashes before and after "Sun" wrap it with special emphasis, even if we aren't sure what that emphasis is to mean. Perhaps it lends a feeling of "At last!" to the line, as in, "At last I have risen so high, I am so high, as I have been desiring to be, up through the clouds and the sky until I rest on the--at last!--sun itself!"

Repeated sounds and partial rhymes: |s| in seraphs/swing/snowy/hats/saints/windows/see/against/ sun; short |a| in seraphs/hats; |l| in till/little/tippler; |t| in till/to/saints/little/tippler/against; |w| in swing/snowy/windows. As if gathering force to end the poem conclusively, the lines of verse four are more than usually united with the repeated sounds of many S’s.

As we have seen, Dickinson certainly did find a fresh and personal way to shake us out of our doldrums about nature; she has a gift for it. Her conceit of drunkenness is surprising, yet not at all off-putting because first, we know this is a delicate and sensitive young lady speaking, not some burly, bluff imbiber. Second, the language is delicate, precise, and beautifully calculated to invoke an effect that is none the less convincing for being whimsical. She loves to rise very early, to watch the sky turn molten with the approach of the sun, to drink in the air moist and sweet with dew, and to exult in these sensations. She has expressed all this in a way that invites us to exult with her—and to wave our snowy hats at her, too, should we have one to hand.

* I don't believe Emily Dickinson would have used "hat" for "halo." Though I may be mistaken, I believe haloes were depicted mainly in Roman Catholic art, which would not have been so much regarded in Protestant New England.

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