On one of Emily Dickinson’s most curious poems – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
We often talk of being ‘drunk on love’ or ‘drunk on excitement’ or other such things. Here, in ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’, Emily Dickinson takes such an everyday expression and makes it concrete, using the metaphor of drunkenness to describe her heady intoxication with nature.
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
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!
A gloriously exhilarating poem, delightful in its delight: delight in nature, in the world, in the everyday things we see around us all the time but seldom stop to appreciate. Going about and enjoying the richness of the natural world is like tasting an alcohol drink more beautiful than has ever been brewed, out of tankards made from pearl (the precious pearl).
But our speaker is not drunk on alcohol, but on air, and on dew – the fresh air and morning dew found all around her in the natural world. The description of the clear sky as ‘inns of molten blue’ is especially vivid, with the ‘endless’ of ‘endless summer days’ in the previous line suggesting not only the cloudlessness of the sky hinted at in the next line but also the infinite nature of the heavens above.
And nothing will stop her from taking such heady delight in nature: even when bees no longer gather nectar from the foxglove (this image reminding us that bees get drunk on the nectar they collect), she will still be found getting drunk on its joys.
The final stanza proves a little more difficult to analyse, but, to attempt a summary: When seraphs (or angels) make the clouds move (suggesting, perhaps, thunder and rain), and saints run to the windows to see such a sight, they will find her, the ‘little tippler’ leaning against the sun, drunkenly enjoying it. Which still doesn’t make much sense, so anyone who wants to venture some extra ideas concerning how we should interpret it – be our guest. It’s an altogether more perplexing and less straightforward stanza than the ones which precede it!
‘I taste a liquor never brewed’ might almost be viewed as an extended riff on the metaphorical idea of being ‘drunk with happiness’: the poem’s speaker is in thrall to the heady delights of the world around them. That nature can exercise such power over Emily Dickinson shows how far she was, among other things, a natural successor to the Romantics.
Continue to explore Dickinson’s poetry with Dickinson’s wonderful snake poem, ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, her ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’., and her poem ‘Because I could not stop for Death’. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.