“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—through 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—
emilyEmily Dickinson may not have been the most seasoned drinker, but she understood its sensations well enough to create an extended metaphor that is still remembered in the literary community today. Cleverly, in this poem, she uses inebriation to describe her elation while interacting with nature.

The opening line of the poem is a curious one, which has been a source of questioning for poets and attentive readers over the years. Liquor is not brewed, but instead is distilled. Whether this word choice is accidental or deliberate is unclear. Dickinson may well have simply not understood the way that liquor is made, not having spent much time consuming alcohol. However, three different forms of alcohol are listed in the opening stanza alone. After liquor, Dickinson references “tankards,” metal or ceramic mugs used to consume beer, and follows up this beer reference with an allusion to fine wine produced in western Germany- Rhine. It is unusual that she includes (or combines) all three, and may suggest that this initial mix-up is intentional.

In terms of meaning, the opening stanza suggests that Dickinson is intoxicated by something far better than what we commonly experience. The liquor is finer than crisp beer served generously as well as some of Europe’s most esteemed wine. It is, of course, figurative however, this stanza initiating what becomes the poem’s extended metaphor.

In the second stanza, we discover the actual subject of the metaphor- experiences of nature in all its forms. Dickinson is “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew.” In simpler terms, she feels drunk—euphoric—from the crisp breeze and has overindulged in admiring the wet dew on the grass. These are sensations of summer, she clarifies. She strolls happily and without worry through the land of “molten blue,” that is, the sky, which she illustrates as an inn where she would go to drink. Dickinson offers little explanation as to why she feels about these elements of nature in the passionate way that she does, but perhaps it is because she does not know. This lack of clarity makes her choice of metaphor very effective; alcohol inspires feelings and actions that are often inexplicable or even rash.

Dickinson continues the poem with a slightly altered approach, in the third stanza depicting the difference between how she can experience nature compared to the creatures that benefit from it in more practical ways. Bees seek the pollen of flowers such as a foxglove, but are often forced away from these flowers by others. Could humans be the landlords that Dickinson refers to? Beekeepers, perhaps, that drive the bees away from flowers so that they themselves can admire the flowers without the possibility of a sting. Butterflies, too, “drink” from flowers, but for whatever reason are sometimes unable to do so. Dickinson, on the other hand, points out that these instances don’t inhibit her from her inebriated experiences in nature. On the contrary, when animals are unable to indulge in nature, she will simply “drink the more.” This distinction highlights the element of greed that results from alcoholic consumption, but may also imply human greed or insensitivity among its living peers like bees and butterflies.

Her admiration does have limits. Dickinson closes the poem by suggesting that she will only stop celebrating the outdoors either when winter hits or when angels gaze in amazement at her love for nature. She feels guided by the expectations of “seraphs” and “saints,” which raises her religious mindset: a theme that runs throughout the rest of her work. The metaphor comes to a close at the ultimate stage of inebriation, that is, alcoholism. By referring to herself as a “tippler,” “leaning against the sun,” she interestingly introduces the idea that there may be an admiration for the environment that is simply too much. In a drunken state, she finds herself resting dangerously against the object that brings light and life to her earthly joys of dew, air, summer, sky, flowers, bees and butterflies. Leaning against the sun literally, of course, is suicidal, which suggests Dickinson’s caution against overindulgence. The liquor never brewed must be savored responsibly.

Posted by Chuck Dodge