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Emily Dickinson's "I would distil a cup"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only authentic extant image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only authentic extant image of the poet.

Introduction and Text of "I would distil a cup"

The text of this poem in prose form appears in a letter to Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, the most influential newspaper in New England around 1858. The letter begins with the writer thanking Mr. Bowles for sending her a pamphlet. She expresses uncertainly that he is the actual sender but thanks him in case he is.

The rest of the letter finds the writer communicating her famous claim that her friends are her "estate," and celebrating the notion that friendship enlivens her, keeping her on her toes.

The letter bears the date August 1858 and she remarks that the workers are gathering the "second Hay." Thus, the summer season is winding down. It is at this point in the letter that she states, "I would distil a cup, and bear to all my friends, drinking to her no more astir, by beck, or burn, or moor!"

Apparently, Emily Dickinson thought enough of this sentence to include it as a full-fledged poem in one of the many fascicles that Thomas H. Johnson later edited for publication in his The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, the groundbreaking work that restored Dickinson's poems to their original forms.

In the letter, the sentence-turned-poem seems to jump out as a toast at a dinner party, wherein one would rise, raise a cup, and offer the toast to one being recognized.

I would distil a cup

I would distil a cup,
And bear to all my friends,
Drinking to her no more astir,
By beck, or burn, or moor!

Reading of "I would distil a cup"


In a letter to Samuel Bowels, Emily Dickinson puts on display her colorful, chatty conversational ability, including this original prose-statement, which later became a finished poem.

First Movement: Creating, Rising, and Offering

I would distil a cup,
And bear to all my friends,

The speaker, as if rising to offer a toast at some gathering of friends, imparts that she wishes to offer a toast "to all [her] friends." The drink is likely a fine whiskey; thus the speaker conflated the manufacture of the drink with her lifting the cup.

She makes herself more important to the creation of the drink than she, or anyone offering a toast, would deserve. But the exaggeration simply implies her devotion to her friends, who are by the way, her "estate." Not only is she offering a toast, but she is creating the drink in order to offer it.

Then after the speaker had created this distilled beverage, she lifts her cup and bears it contents to all her friends. At the point that poem appears in her letter to Bowles, she had made it clear that she can make chatty conversation.

She has claimed that she wishes to be forgiven for hoarding her friends. She has surmised that those who were once poor have a very different view of gold than those were never suffered poverty.

The letter writer even invokes God, saying He does not worry so much as we or else he would "give us no friends, lest we forget him." Playing on the expression, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," she compares what one might anticipate in "Heaven" as opposed to what one experiences on earth and finds the latter more appealing.

However, the speaker then abruptly tells Bowles that, "Summer stopped since you were here," after which she mourns the loss of summer with several acerbic witticisms. She offers Bowles some paraphrases from her "Pastor," who has dismissed humanity as nothing but a "Worm."

Then she poses the question to Bowles: "Do you think we shall 'see God'?" This abrupt inquiry likely started Bowles, which is no doubt the writer's purpose. But then she moves on to the image of "Abraham" "strolling" with God "in genial promenade," seemingly answering her own startling question.

Second Movement: As Summer Abandons the Streams and Meadows

Drinking to her no more astir,
By beck, or burn, or moor!

After having distilled the fine whiskey, poured it into her cup, she lifts it and offers her toast to the one who is in the process of departing, her beloved summer. The summer season is no longer "astir" in the streams or on the meadows.

She employs the colorful terms "beck" and "burn" to refer to streams of water. And then she refers to fields, heaths, or meadows as "moor," likely also for its colorful, exotic texture.

Immediately after the toasting sentence in the letter, the letter writer abruptly bids Mr. Bowles, "Good night," but she still has more to say and proceeds to say it. She then claims that "this is what they say who come back in the morning."

She seems to be identifying with summer who is saying good-bye but only to return "in the morning." But her certainty that "Confidence in Daybreak modifiers Dusk," allows her to accept the pair of opposites that continually blight her world.

The speaker has difficulty even saying good-night or good-bye to a friend once she has opened the conversation. But she knows she must wind down, just a summer has done, thus she wishes blessings for Bowles' wife and children, even going to far as to send kisses for lips of the little ones.

She then tells Bowles that she and the rest of the Dickinson family remain eager to visit with him again. And she will dispense with "familiar truths," for his sake.

Dickinson and at the Exotic

Dickinson's penchant for exoticisms likely enamored her of some of the more cryptic expressions placed in her letters. That penchant allowed her be so cheeky as to select certain expressions and later present them in a fascicle as a poem.

It also explains her employment of terms for ordinary nouns such a field, river, creek, or meadow. She kept her dictionary handy and made abundant use of it.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 13, 2018:

Dickinson is an amazing talent; her poems are varied and fascinating. Many read like riddles, with skillfully created extended metaphors. Even her short, cryptic verses, like this one, offer much to consider and research. Her love of her craft is equal to that of the Shakespeare writer; they both aim high in their pursuit of beauty, love, and truth.

Thank you, Robin, for your response! Have a blessed day!

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on February 12, 2018:

Emily Dickinson, I truly loved until this day she is so amazing a great read