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Emily Dickinson’s "I taste a liquor never brewed"

Updated on April 13, 2018
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "I taste a liquor never brewed"

This poem's theme is similar to Paramahansa Yogananda's chant: "I will sing thy Name, I will drink thy Name, and get all drunk, O, with thy Name!" Dickinson’s speaker proclaims a spiritual consciousness. The poem extends the metaphor of drunkenness to describe the status of a soul in mystical union with the Divine.

Dickinson’s speaker in “I taste a liquor never brewed” describes a consciousness steeped in a mystical state that mimics inebriation. She is inspired and enthralled seemingly just by breathing the air around her. The speaker's consciousness becomes aware of itself and propels her into an immense universe that is difficult to describe. Thus she uses the alcohol metaphor to approximate the physical sensation of what she is experiencing spiritually.

Thomas H. Johnson numbered this poem #214 in his useful work, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, which restored Dickinson’s peculiar punctuation and elliptical stye. As usual, Dickinson used slant rime or near rime; for example, she rimes Pearl and Alcohol.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

I taste a liquor never brewed

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 —

Reading of Dickinson's "I taste a liquor never brewed"

Commentary

“I taste a liquor never brewed” is one of Dickinson's most enthralling little poems, likening spiritual ardor to drunkenness.

Stanza 1: Imbibing a Non-Brewed Beverage

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

The speaker announces that she has been imbibing a drink, but that beverage is not one that has been brewed, which eliminates alcohol, tea, and coffee, this is, the beverages which have mind-altering capabilities.

The speaker then begins an extended metaphor, likening the effect of her “liquor" to that of an alcoholic beverage.

The "Tankards scooped in Pearl” simulate the vessels from which the speaker has been imbibing her rare concoction. The consciousness which the speaker wishes to describe transcends the physical consciousness of an alcohol hum; thus the speaker must resort to metaphor to communicate as nearly as possible this unexplainable state.

Those rare tankards having been “scooped in Pearl” spiritually correspond to the nature of the soul. She has, in fact, drunk a beverage that has not been brewed from a vessel that has not been manufactured.

Stanza 2: It's Like Being Drunk

Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue –

Dickinson’s speaker continues her metaphor by revealing that the feeling she is experiencing is like being drunk on air; thus the act of simply taking a breath of air has the power to intoxicate her.

Not only air, but the “Dew" has this delicious effect. Further physical realities like a summer day make her feel that she has been drinking at a tavern, “Inns of Molten Blue.” All this imbibing leaves her “reeling" from this rare form of intoxicant.

Stanza 3: A Drunken State the Never Ceases

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

On the stage of nature, the speaker is accompanied by “bees and butterflies,” and these fellow creatures quite literally imbibe nectar from flowers. The speaker’s brand of liquor has an advantage over that of the bees.

They have to stop their imbibing and leave their blossoms or else they will become enclosed as the petals close up for the night. But because of the spiritual nature of this speaker’s intoxication, she does not have stop drinking. She can enjoy her drunken state without end.

Only on the physical plane do activities begin and end; on the spiritual plane, the intoxication has no need to cease. The eternal soul is without boundaries.

Stanza 4; The Dash That Runs to Eternity

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun —

The speaker boasts that she will never have to curtail her mode of mystical intoxication. As the penultimate stanza ends with the claim, "I shall but drink the more!,” the idea continues into the final stanza. By placing the time of her stopping her drinking at two fantastic events that will never occur, she emphatically asserts that she will never have to stop her drinking binge.

When the highest order of angels, the “Seraphs,” commit the unlikely act of "swing[ing] their snowy Hats,” and curious saints run to windows, only then shall she cease her imbibing. That time is never because Seraphs and saints do not comport themselves with such behavior. The speaker calls herself “the little Tippler” and positions herself “[l]eaning against the — Sun.” Another impossible act on the physical level, but one quite possible on the mystical.

The final clue that the speaker is asserting her ability never to stop drinking of the mystical wine is the final punctuation of the dash — that concludes her report. The period, question mark, or exclamation mark, as some editors have employed, denote finality while the dash does not.

Thomas H. Johnson has restored the dash — to this poem in his The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. When other versions lose the Dickinsonian dash, they also lose a nuance of her meaning.

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for the commentaries on Dickinson's poems
The text I use for the commentaries on Dickinson's poems | Source

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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