2014 Poetry Essay for Penn Modern Poetry Course

Dickinson’s Strange Brew: An Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed”

By: V.C. McCabe
I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” 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 —

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I taste a liquor never brewed,” unofficially titled for its first line, could initially be dismissed as an overtly sentimental ode to nature which lacks the hidden depths of other Dickinson poems. However, a more thorough examination of the poem reveals Dickinson’s signature method of cleverly embedding kaleidoscopic expression within deceptively simple, succinct phrases. In this case, allusions to personal and spiritual freedom lurk behind her metaphoric depiction of a nature lover’s euphoria.

The first stanza tells us the poet has “tasted” some supernaturally exquisite “liquor,” with the world “pearl” suggesting the high quality of whatever so intoxicates her. Yet her ecstasy and uncharacteristic lack of inhibition are not the result of consuming literal alcohol. So what is it that so sets her senses afire?

One possible answer is found in the second stanza: “air,” “dew” and “endless summer days” indicate the metaphor of drunkenness expresses a keen awareness and appreciation for the wonders of nature. The poet is drunk on the exhilarating beauty and activity to be found outdoors on a sunny summer day.

The third stanza flips the metaphor a bit – now it is nature that is so drunk “Landlords” turn “bees” out and “butterflies” renounce their “drams.” It is here a seasonal structure to the poem becomes most apparent: the first stanza blooming in Spring; the second heating up in sultry Summer; the third defiant of Autumn’s slow death; and the fourth dreaming of an afterlife in and beyond “snowy” Winter. For the poet refuses to stop drinking up the beauty of nature even in dead Winter. On the contrary, the withering displays of warmer seasons fuel her thirst to imbibe Winter’s unique pleasures and daydream of the next Spring.

She remains outside, drinking in the elements, as so-called “Saints” run to watch her brazen adventures through windows in the fourth stanza. Here the perspective of the poem shifts to see “the little tippler” through the cloistered view of her saintly spectators. They huddle inside for warmth, closed in, closed off, while she leans against the brilliant sun of her own mind.

Considering the poem as a whole after the final celestially-themed stanza shines a light through the poet’s prism of words to reveal another possibility: that of a grander, spiritual scheme. “Pearl,” for example, is used in the Bible as a metaphor for a treasure or something to be viewed as possessing great value.

The phrase “the little tipper” and her elevated vantage point leaning against the sun suggest elation tempered with humility as the poet contemplates her small place in the magnificent universe. Such a thought calls to mind Isaac Newton’s own spiritual rumination on the universe: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” Dickinson’s faith, freed from the constraints of corrupted man made religion, is lifted up, buoyed by the evidence of a Creator she sees in the creation around her.

There’s also an undercurrent of sensuality to the poem, from the wild “reeling” feelings of the poet herself to the self-righteous judgement of those who watch her and the heat of the “Sun” she finally leans upon.

As always, though, it seems apparent the main thrust of Dickinson’s poetic argument is to reap the benefits of keeping an ever open mind.

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