The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

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.

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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 times. The evidence gleaned from her letters is that Dickinson’s incorporation of this single letter was calculated and deliberate.

As the poem proceeds, the “I” in the poem turns “my brimming eyes away,” suggesting tears and a denial of love. But although her eyes are turned away, the speaker returns the next hour to look. By stanza 3, the speaker is hugging the glass that holds the wine. She calls the glass “tardy,” meaning that the salvation that the wine would have brought—metaphorically a kiss and, even more broadly, love—has been delayed to the point that it is no longer likely to occur. The final line of this stanza suggests that the lips are cold, that either the object of the speaker’s love or the love itself is now dead.

The following verse reveals clearly that it is the love rather than the object of that love that is dead, because the speaker asserts that she cannot hope to “warm/ The bosoms where the frost has lain/ Ages beneath the mould—.” Here the word “mould” suggests “mound,” although it serves a dual purpose in invoking images of the disintegration of organic matter as well as that of a form that is used to shape pliable materials.

The speaker goes on to imply that the possibility of some other love entering her life might have existed but that this has not happened. During her lifetime, Dickinson lived through the painful losses of many people she loved dearly; from the isolation of her secluded room, she loved many people who were unavailable to her. But in the next to last stanza, she implies that her love is still available, her thirst still unslaked, leading into the last stanza in which she proffers the hope, but not the guarantee, of an eternity, of final salvation.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

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 “lain” in stanza four, and of “cup” and “drop” in stanza 6. She selected her words with the conscious intent, as both her revisions and her letters indicate, to heighten her reader’s attention, of keeping her writing from becoming pedestrianly sing-songy.

For the same reasons, she also frequently disturbed regular meter, as she does in the last line of stanza 3 in this poem, which reads, “Are so superfluous Cold—.” A more regular and conventional meter would have been achieved by using “superfluously” rather than “superfluous,” a much more usual choice because the word in question is an adverb of manner and such words often end in “-ly.”

The imagery in “I bring an unaccustomed wine” is highly visual, with words that overlap other words, such as the lips that are “crackling with fever” in the second stanza. Not only do readers receive the impression of lips that are hot and dry, but the work “crackling” also is so similar to “cracking” that one involuntarily concocts a double visual image upon reading it. Although she wrote under the Victorian constraints that characterized her day, Dickinson was a highly passionate, albeit sexually frustrated, woman. Her use of the word “bosoms” in the fourth stanza ties in with her choice of “cup” in the sixth stanza rather than “glass,” as used previously in the third stanza. In her refined and indirect way, she here expresses the unfulfilled passion that dogged her solitary, puritanical existence.

The “drink/thirst” metaphor in this poem extends far beyond its literal meaning, although the literal meaning is credible, as the meaning of any successful metaphor must be. The thirst Dickinson refers to is a longing, a restrained passion; on a metaphysical level it may be seen as a thirst for the eternal life that many religions promise. Dickinson did not dogmatically regard eternal life as a certainty but only as a possibility, as she makes clear in her last stanza. The wine to which she refers is clearly the wine of salvation, but it exists as a hope, a mere possibility.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.

Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Pollack, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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