Emily Dickinson did not give titles to most of her poems, so they are generally referred to by their first lines. The editor of the 1955 edition of her poems, Thomas H. Johnson, attempted to number them according to the order of their composition; “I taste a liquor never brewed—” is listed as number 214. Dickinson sometimes left alternate versions of her poems, and the version discussed here is what Johnson believed to be her final one.
“I taste a liquor never brewed—” consists of four stanzas, the second and fourth lines rhyming in each quatrain. This is a poem of visionary experience in which the richness of a natural setting in summer is the cause. Speaking in her own lyric voice, Dickinson describes the exhilaration of going outdoors in summer in terms of getting drunk in a tavern.
In the first stanza, she asserts that she is drinking an unusual kind of liquor, one that has not been brewed but that is superior to the finest Rhine wine. In the second stanza, she says that she has become drunk by consuming the air and the dew of summer days. This consumption has taken place in “inns of Molten Blue,” or under the hot summer sky. In the third stanza, she claims that her capacity for this liquor exceeds that of the most dedicated of summer’s drinkers, the bees and the butterflies: When they have ceased drinking, she will continue. In the final quatrain, she affirms that she will drink until seraphs—the six-winged angels that stand in the presence of God—and saints as well run to Heaven’s windows to see her, “the little Tippler/ Leaning against the—Sun—.”
The last image of the poem, which grows out of the central comparison between drunkenness and her experiences of the summer day, humorously conveys a spiritual expansion of the self. Through this expansion, she comes to the notice of divine spirits, calling them away from their usual adoration of God in order to see this smaller god who, though perhaps a little unruly, has grown momentarily toward her true stature and importance.
Forms and Devices
Dickinson employs careful placement of pauses and an implied phrase repetition to break up what would otherwise be a steady marching rhythm. By this means, she conveys a dual sense of staggering, of the drunk losing physical control and the mystic stumbling into the presence of divinity. She makes her conventional stanza serve the unconventional, even the daring juxtaposition of drinking alcohol with nature as an inspiration of sublime perceptions.
Dickinson’s central device is the metaphor that brings together drunkenness with visionary perception. She establishes that, for her, the air and dew of summer constitute a liquor and that she is a drunkard, reeling through days that are like streets, after drinking in the inn of the sky. Therefore, she has prepared the reader for the whimsical and surprising development of this comparison in the final two stanzas.
In the third quatrain, the foxglove flower becomes the tavern of the bee. Dickinson produces fanciful humor in this comparison by inventing “landlords”—placing the word in quotation marks—who will turn the bees out of the foxgloves when they have become too drunk. She continues in this vein by speaking of butterflies that, after drinking deep, “renounce their ‘drams.’” The language of these comparisons evokes one of the many popular crusades of Dickinson’s lifetime, the temperance movement. Often, the temperance movement called for total abstinence from alcohol, and it temporarily succeeded in legally enforced abstinence with the passage of national prohibition within forty years after Dickinson’s death. By playing at opposing both abstinence and temperance, Dickinson pokes fun at the seriousness of the predominantly Protestant and conservative culture in her native Amherst, Massachusetts, where the rhetoric of temperance was familiar. This seeming irreverence extends to serious religious ideas as well.
A playful irreverence appears in the final stanza....
(The entire section is 1,124 words.)