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

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - circa age 17

Emily Dickinson - circa age 17

Introduction and Text of “I taste a liquor never brewed"

The theme of Emily Dickinson's “I taste a liquor never brewed" 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, as 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 "I taste a liquor never brewed"

I Will Sing Thy Name - 2020 Centennial Kirtan AMC

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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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