ON EMILY DICKINSON’S “I TASTE A LIQUOR NEVER BREWED”

Emily Dickinson is a poetess I fell in love with. I fell in love with her sensitivity, her artistry, her honesty, her subtle and concise way of undressing her soul through verses of exquisite taste. This text here is a simple tribute to one of her most glorious writings. To her health, I mean to the rest of her poetic soul as you and « I taste a liquor never brewed »…

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Cocktails and shots

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 —

Emily Dickinson

A comparison with Apollinaire

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the most touching poetry book I ever read throughout my entire life. That book’s title was: “Alcohols”; and it was written by Guillaume Apollinaire,—a very famous French poet. The whole book was an echo of the poet’s life spent searching love,—a quest many times unsuccessful and “yielding” miserable results. Love tasted good and tasted sour at the same time. Therefore, when I read that author, I felt like I was doing something more, I felt like poems could capture the essence of emotions we often want to get rid of with alcohols, I felt like I was drinking a beverage made up of misery, spleen and sadness. The bottom-line is: Apollinaire’s book gave me a “taste” of “a liquor never brewed”, the original substance of his life: Sweet and sour like a whisky.

Purpose of this poem

Is it not what Emily Dickinson is trying to do here when she says “I taste a liquor never brewed”? That liquor could be anything: Wine, beer, gin, scotch, vodka! Again, that liquor could be anything: An experience, a song, a ballad, a poem! “Never brewed” could also mean: Never created, never written, never revealed or never published… If we assumed what comes before, we could assume that something “never brewed” is also something unheard of, something original, something pure, something never tasted before, thus something that never underwent any transformation or alteration of its nature… Is such liquor an earthly thing? What is its nature?

Structure of the poem’s metrics

Strophe 1: 8/6/8/6

Strophe 2: 8/6/8/6

Strophe 3: 8/6/8/6

Strophe 4: 8/6/7/6

This poem is therefore a ballad, an almost perfect ballad that goes through the head of the reader like a melodious and disruptive song… Melodious and Disruptive or Sweet and Sour? I got it, just like the French poet! This poem is therefore “a liquor” since it has the attributes of it! As that liquor could be made of her life and emotions, Emily Dickinson could be the alter-ego of Guillaume Apollinaire…

Comments on strophe 1

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

In order to be careful, let us analyze each and every strophe one step at a time. Indeed, with the first one Emily Dickinson is saying that she is experimenting something that has no equal when it comes to inducing reverie, drunkenness and intoxication: She tastes “a liquor never brewed”. The use of the present tense is important; she means that the action of tasting lasts for a long time or is at least done frequently, regularly just like a habit, idea furthered in the following verse. Undeniably, Dickinson’s beverage needs a special glass, a “tankard scooped in pearl”, a rich goblet, a sumptuous and well decorated tumbler, a precious cup to be drunk.

I want to stress on the use of the word “Tankards” and not “Tankard”. It’s plural. Well, if you go to a pub and ask the bartender: ‘Hello sir, I want tankards of you best liquor!’ You shall receive liters and liters of wine served in several beautiful glasses! Enjoy all of it if you are an avid drinker! But, at the end of the day, you will eventually have to pay a high price for your gluttony. It could ruin you physically and financially… What is surprising here is that, Emily Dickinson describes herself as someone capable of affording and digesting the rarest liquor and in great quantities, in “Tankards”, she reveals. She wants to over-drink because “this” is what she loves most. She implies that she will never get enough of this, that poetry feeling, this, that rarity she carefully calls “liquor”.

We used the word ‘rarity’. Let’s justify it. Everybody knows that Germany has always had the reputation of being the country of the best beers and the best drunkards in the world. In Germany, there is an ancient river called “Rhine”. Consequently, when Dickinson affirms that “Not all the Vats upon the Rhine Yield such an Alcohol”, she means that even Germans know little about the liquor she talks about since it is a ‘rarity’. As such, it can hardly be found at the world’s cradle (Germany) of hard drinks! Where else in the whole world would one find Dickinson’s liquor if not within her own writings, clues and guesses!

Comments on strophe 2

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

The lines above come to reinforce and strengthen our previous arguments. In fact, Emily Dickinson is now suffering from the excess of that liquor-poetry-emotion she so often loves to savor and “taste”. Delighting herself everyday with it, she is now in an altered state of consciousness. “Inebriate of Air — am I –“… ‘Inebriate of Air: Am I?’ Written like this, she is asking a question! But to whom? Who else is with her? Maybe the reader! She is no longer sure of anything! At this stage, she sounds drunk… But “Air” is an element of life itself as well as “Dew” which is water found on trees and leaves at the first hours of daylight: It can never make anybody drunk. After tasting her personal liquor, Emily Dickinson seems to have dreamed for a long time. She seems partly awaken from her dream. She looks like a night bird quite dreaming quite lucid. “Air” and “Dew” are now tasty and can make that woman “Inebriate” like a “Debauchee”. Gibberish and delusion, she’s delusional… She is not thinking straight on her feet. On her feet, she is “Reeling”, she is staggering, she is walking as if unable to control her own movements. And she is writing as if unable to control her own ideas, as if incapable of stopping her mind from wondering: What if it was “Air” and “Water” that made me this dissolute? Gibberish and delusion!

Why is it so? It is so because drinking has made her lose time-consciousness. The truth is, “summer days” now appear to the writer “endless” and it pains her to find a way, to walk straight “thro” (through) it. Last line of strophe 2 tells us why Emily Dickinson has chosen to “taste a liquor”: She is trying to drown sadness! Let’s not forget another poem by Emily Dickinson where she said: “I dwell in Possibility”. In this poem here, she has decided to temporarily leave her “Possibility”, her fairy and heavenly poetry house for a voyage, for a trip, for an experiment, for a taste and for a liquor. On her road out of her house, she decided to stay in many “inns of Molten Blue”. it’s “summer” for God’s sake and she’s on holidays! If dwelling in possibility was a sound and safe choice, the “inns of Molten Blue” seem now to be less praiseworthy locations. Indeed, “Molten Blue” must definitely be a place. But it is also an allegory for a state of mind where the “blue” of the sky and the “blue” of depression are “molten” together or reduced to liquid form through heating. I would be happy to say that she is now staying in an abode where the precious liquor she’s been served is a ‘liquid blues’. To be true: Molten Blue is where she slumbers & Molten Blue is what she drinks. Liquor = Molten Blue = liquid blues = Poetry.

Comments on strophe 3

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 use of rhymes

Look at how this stanza is unevenly rhymed—A/B/C/B—and you will understand that from time to time, the writer has flashes of sobriety, reason why the B rhymes always come back throughout this entire poem. And from time to time, the writer becomes delusional, hence the presence of A and C rhymes variations throughout this entire poem.

On the use of words

Literally, “Landlords” are people who own lands and lease them to others. Metaphorically, “Landlords” are the patrons of pubs and bars. Literally, a “Bee” is a hairy-bodied insect that turns pollen into honey. Metaphorically, a “Bee” is a social gathering to carry out communal tasks or to hold competitions. Literally, “drams” are units of apothecary weight equal to an eighth of an ounce or to 60 grains. Metaphorically, “drams” are little glasses of drinks. The bottom-line is: In the strophe above, Dickinson is playing with the polysemy of words to show that a lexical ambiguity has taken control of her senses. If “bees” stop drinking, if “butterflies” stop drinking (two animals famous for their ability to feed day in and day out), if everything is ambiguous and blurry for her, she “shall drink the more!” This sentence therefore denotes an addiction of the writer because the previous lines were hyperbolic in nature. She is taking drinking as a competition, as a challenge against “bees” and « butterflies »: That’s the reason why she is so motivated. Liquor has made her delusional!

Comments on strophe 4

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

With the lines above, we finally get to understand why Emily Dickinson who’s always seemed cold and serious in her writings is now using poetry as liquor that messes up all of her senses.

Why?

Fair enough, she wants to attract attention, the attention of everybody! She won’t stop drinking poetry, her imaginative and unmatched liquor until “Seraphs”, the angels of the first order “swing” or move “their snowy Hats” to socialize with her a little. She won’t quit until “Saints” who have been raised from the dead “to windows run” in order “To see” her,—“the little Tippler”: A pleonasm here because a tippler is someone who drinks liquor in small quantities. She wants all beings of paradise and heaven to rush to see her “Leaning against the — Sun”, the most beautiful and majestic of all stars.

As a final word, what say we?

Emily Dickinson is advocating in this poem a less sober approach of poetry. She is claiming that it is possible to let oneself be guided here and there by the reverie and drunkenness of one’s own words until a masterpiece gets born out of that behavioral chaos. She is advising writers to do like her, to dare for more! By getting to your lowest level of emotion, by getting inspired from your own melancholy, you can amaze and attract the consideration of all that is elevated. Her point is: If you want to go higher as an artist, you must first be willing to go lower as a thinker,—quite a great paradox!

— Gilles F. Dogbo

8 comments on “ON EMILY DICKINSON’S “I TASTE A LIQUOR NEVER BREWED””

  1. Excellent post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed!
    Extremely helpful info particularly the last part 🙂 I care for
    such info much. I was seeking this particular information for a very long time.
    Thank you and good luck.

    1. Yeah,
      I do my best to keep up the hard work.
      One thing is true though, as time passes by, I feel less and less a need to write close-readings, if that is what you mean by fresh and unique articles. I keep my readers updated on poetry that is fresh and unique though! I don’t wish this website to look like a textbook.
      Anyway, thanks for the great comment! I’ll keep the dice rolling…
      Your friend,
      Gilles

  2. Excellent post. I was checking constantly this
    blog and I am impressed! Very useful information specifically the final part 🙂 I care for such info much.

    I used to be seeking this certain information for a long time.

    Thanks and good luck.

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