Themes and Meanings

In “I bring an unaccustomed wine,” Emily Dickinson is concerned both with unfulfilled love and with questions of eternity. The first concern is exemplified well in the early stanzas of this poem, but as Dickinson moves into the poem, beginning as early as the fourth stanza, she begins to consider questions regarding death and immortality, subjects with which she deals extensively throughout the corpus of her writing.

Despite having been raised in a conventionally Christian home as a member of a socially prominent New England family, Dickinson was far from a blind follower of Christian theology. Throughout her life she harbored a profound skepticism. She hoped that the Christian promises with which she had been raised were valid, but she did not presume to assert categorically that they were. The poem also deals with unrequited love and with loss, but just as Dickinson has not foreclosed the possibility of an eternal existence, neither has she foreclosed the possibility that love may still come.

The “I” in Emily Dickinson’s poems is more often a universalized “I” than a first-person reference to the poet herself. Her natural modesty would have forbidden her to use the personal “I” to the extent that she uses that pronoun in her poems. In most of the poems, a universal voice interacts with the reader, which is one of the distinguishing traits of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

In this respect, although her poems are far removed stylistically from those of Walt Whitman, she bears a similarity to him. In both poets, some inexperienced readers may be irritated by the seeming egoism of the poet, but in neither poet is the surface egoism a personalized egoism. Rather, this seeming egoism is a device used thematically to develop a relationship among the poet, the reader, and the substance of what is being written about.

This is not to suggest that the poems of either Dickinson or Whitman are not informed by their personal experiences. Such experiences are basic to most writing. The competent writer, as in the case of these two significant American poets, moves from the specifically personal to the universal.