The Poem

Typical of Emily Dickinson’s terse, succinct poems that have a way of exploding with meaning, “I bring an unaccustomed wine” delivers its impact in twenty-two lines divided into seven stanzas, the first of four lines, the subsequent ones of three lines each. Dickinson frequently uses alcoholic metaphors—wine, beer, liquor—in her poems, not to celebrate drinking but to convey cryptic messages to her readers. In her poem “I taste a liquor never brewed,” for example, the liquor she refers to is honey, liquor to the bees that gather the pollen to make honey.

In “I bring an unaccustomed wine,” the wine referred to is an elixir of sorts, a potion to wet dry, unkissed lips. The “lips long parching,” however, are not her own but are next to hers, giving a passionate overtone to the first verse. She summons the lips to drink, which can be taken to mean that she longs for them to kiss her lips. This poem is among Dickinson’s “I/eye” poems. In letters that she wrote during this period in her poetic development, Dickinson revealed that she was experimenting with these words. Note that not only does the poem begin with the word “I” but that also in the first two lines alone the letter “i” appears in “bring,” “wine,” “lips,” and “parching.” Save for her letters indicating her conscious experimentation with “I,” one might think simply that many two-line segments of poetry or prose could contain the letter five...

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Forms and Devices

Emily Dickinson’s poems are usually less than a page long and consist most frequently of short stanzas, often no more than three or four lines long. This poem is typical in this respect. It is also typical in that just as the poet has achieved the conventional rhyme of “wine” and “mine” in the first stanza, she departs from conventional rhyme by introducing the word “drink,” which certainly does not rhyme either with “parching” (line 2) or with the last word in the second stanza, “look,” although here the k sound gives Dickinson the poetic link she requires.

The last words of stanzas 3 and 4, “Cold” and “mould,” rhyme perfectly. Dickinson again uses rhyme whimsically with her choice of the final words in stanzas 5, 6, and 7, where she suggests rhyme by choosing “speak” and “slake” but then returns to conventional rhyme with “slake” and “awake.”

An examination of Dickinson’s poetic manuscripts, presented in striking detail in Thomas H. Johnson’s edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Including Variant Readings Critically Compared with All Known Manuscripts, published by the Harvard University Press in a three-volume edition in 1955, reveals that the poet often obliterated a word that rhymed perfectly, preferring another word that suggested only the slightest similarity, as seen in the linking k sounds of “drink” and “look” in stanzas 1 and 2, of “warm” and...

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