How is it even possible, to taste something that isn’t there? According to Emily Dickinson, it’s possible. Read the analysis of Poem 214 – “I TASTE a liquor never brewed.”
About the poem
Let’s get one thing straight: the title that is used for this poem isn’t the official title. Emily Dickinson never used titles. Unlike many of her other poems, this one was published when she was still alive. It appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican on 4 May 1861 (at that time, Emily was 31 years old). The title as we nowadays ‘give’ the poem isn’t the one that was used then. The original title was “The May-Wine.”
How is it that we use a different title now than the editors of the newspaper did then? Simple, when Dickinson wrote this poem, she didn’t give it a title. The title “The May-Wine” was given by the newspaper.
There are more things to notice when it comes to this poem. The editors changed several things. But they weren’t the only ones. When the poem was published in 1890 – four years after her death – changes were made to the text. Responsible for these changes was Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd.
The original version was published in 1955 when a new poetry collection was published. The 1955 version of this poetry collection was published by Thomas H. Johnson. It is because of him that the poems now contain titles instead of numbers. In some publications – such as the online publications of The Ministry of Poetic Affairs – both numbers and ‘given’ titles are used. Just as the same for this poem.
Let’s dive deeper into this poem. It has an interesting pattern. The second and fourth lines rhyme in each quatrain. This is an excellent poem to recite in public as many did!
In this poem, Dickinson celebrates the intoxication. No, not alcohol, but life. In an ironic and even transformative manner. She uses popular phrases of that time. That is why some changes were made in the version of 1890. Then the Rhine was more appealing than Frankfort Berries.
The poem starts very interestingly: the first line is both a paradox and a metaphor. The question that one can ask is: If this liquor is never brewed, how are you able to taste it?
If you were to read further, you might think it’s al about the intoxication with alcohol. Impossible drinks perhaps for decent ladies… That seems to be another thing. In this poem, it looks like Dickinson takes the time to explain what she thinks about ‘popular’ culture. It’s nothing for her. When you take a look at the way she lived, this poem seems more like a life motto.
There is more than one version available. Let’s stick to the close transcription that is in R.W. Franklin’s ”The Poems of Emily Dickinson; Reading Edition” (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press, 1999).
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,
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!