The poem I taste a liquor never brewed has been on our website for quite some time now. Part of our Emily Dickinson Month, we decided to re-analyze this poem. This poem is one of the few poems that was published when Dickinson was alive.
The May Wine
Yes, some of her work was indeed published during her life. However, this poem (number 214) was indeed published. The first publication dates back to May 4, 1861. The poem was published without any indication that Dickinson was the author. The title differs from that of what we now consider to be the title: The May Wine. This has to do with the fact that the publication of 1890 (after her death) was based on the first line of the poem. The Springfield Daily Republican – the newspaper responsible for this publication – was responsible for the title of this poem. Dickinson did not give her poems titles.
In this Dickinson poem, she tells us about getting drunk or intoxicated with life. She used some important issues of her time, to share her message. The tone of this poem is somewhat ironic.
The problem with this poem: there are two versions. Both are shared equally. Let’s assume that the version in the Springfield Daily Republican is the original one. When looking beyond these alterations, one notices that this is a ballad. The lines alternate between four and three beats. This makes the poem resemble another great work in (Christian) literature: Amazing Grace. This hymn was published by John Newton (1725 – 1807).
It doesn’t matter what poem you decide to read. The two versions both begin with an interesting paradox. How is it possible, to taste something that is not there or has not yet been? One should ask another important question: Is liquor really brewed? To give you the answer: liquor is distilled. When someone brews, this can be something that is the process of creating and of thinking. This could be a metaphor for that thinking process. The assumption that she did not know a lot about alcohol, based on the first line of text, is too easy. In the first stanza, she introduces three types of alcoholic drinks: liquor (distilled alcohol like whiskey (the American variant to whisky), tankards (beer), Frankfort Berries (German wine)(in the 1890-version this one is replaced by vats upon the Rhine)). These Frankfort Berries are somewhat important. Remember, this poem was published again in 1890 – after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Germany wasn’t that popular at that time. The usage of the word Rhine makes it possible to consider other countries than Germany. The river Rhine begins in Switzerland and streams to the sea in The Netherlands. Other countries that share this river with Switzerland and The Netherlands are Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany and France. If this interpretation is too wild for you, there is always the option to go for the valley of the Rhine is one of the important regions for German whine (Western-Germany).
Does it really matter? Dickinson describes she is under the influence of something even more strong than we know. In the second stanza, there is an indication of what is really going on: she is not only moved by nature, she is drunk to all things beautiful in nature. The gentle breeze she feels, wet dew on the grass. These are all parts of Summer. Therefore, the title that was used in the original publication in the newspaper isn’t right: The May Wine should be The Summer Wine… or: I tasted a liquor I never brewed.
So, what does this all have to do with alcohol? Alcohol can stimulate emotions, causing a rush. Depending on your views about good and bad, Dickinson brings one important issue forward: it is possible to get this same rush when the inspiration is right. She realizes that there is only one problem: she is not able to fully enjoy nature as some other creatures. We are humans, with our limitations.
There comes a time, when this feeling will end: when Winter is due. The admiration has reached its peak: a drunken state, leaning against the sun. Is she discussing the possibility that too much of anything can be dangerous?
The May Wine
Below is the 1861 version of this poem
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!
I taste a liquor never brewed
Below is the 1890 version of this poem
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!