I taste a liquor never brewed— Summary
by Emily Dickinson

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I taste a liquor never brewed— Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

For the ancient Greeks, Dionysus, the god of the wine grape, was also the deity associated with dramatic poetry. Writing verse, and reading it, removed one from ordinary sense experience. Dickinson, though never invoking the god’s name, makes all she can of the association between intoxication and ecstasy in poem 214. The rhythm of a reel (a whirling dance) supports this imagery. Significantly, this poem privileges the reading of verse to the writing of it. The speaker “tastes” the never-brewed liquor, which is held in pearl tankards, the mother-of-pearl covered verse anthologies of Dickinson’s time. The “Frankfurt Berries,” the hops used to produce fine beer, could never yield as rich a brew as can the well-distilled language of great poetry.

Those who consume the insubstantial metaphors of verse become drunk, debauched on air and dew; they reel through summers that never end from inns under eternally blue skies. The speaker is unrepentant for her drunkenness. She will stop consuming verse only when the “Landlords” of nature turn “the drunken Bee” from gathering pollen from flowers or when butterflies no longer gather their “drains”—in other words, when nature no longer furnishes precedents for the speaker’s behavior. When she dies, the seraphim, highest order among the angels, will toss their halos, their “snowy Hats,” in greeting, the saints come to their windows to see her, the “little Tippler” from the world of humans—as well as from the wine-grape district of Spain, which she calls “Manzanilla.”

This poem furnishes a good example of how early editors often diminished the strength of Dickinson’s verse through alterations they believed would make the poetry more consonant with prevailing taste. After Dickinson’s death, Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd changed the last lines from “To see the little Tippler/ From Manzanilla come!” to “To see the little Tippler/ Leaning against the sun.” Their change rendered even more vapid the innocuous 1861 alteration made by the Springfield Daily Republican: “Come staggering toward the sun.”