Emily Dickinson's "I would distil a cup"
Introduction and Text of Poem
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, 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.
Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.
Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.
New England Family
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.
Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.
Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.
After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.
As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.”
Reclusiveness and Religion
In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.
Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.
Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.
Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.
Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.
Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes