Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MOOC ModPo Bonus Feature: "I taste a liquor never brewed" by Emily Dickinson

Songs of Eretz Poetry Review is pleased to present a MOOC ModPo Bonus Feature, "I taste a liquor never brewed" by Emily Dickinson.  A link to the poem may be found here:  Dickinson's poetry has been examined many times in the Poetry Review.  A brief biography and references may be found here:

"I taste a liquor never brewed" is in form similar to other ballads of Dickinson that have been examined previously.  It maintains the quatrains customary to ballads and end-line rhymes in the even numbered lines, with some allowance for the first stanza in which the even lines do not rhyme but are consonant.  The rhythm is the traditional iambic tetrameter with the occasional deliberate omission of a foot in some lines for emphasis or singing quality.  The use of the Dickinson dash is ubiquitous, being used fourteen times throughout the poem, twice in some lines.

The poem opens with the enigmatic statement, "I taste a liquor never brewed--".  This immediately begs a question.  Liquor must be brewed, so how can one taste a liquor that was never brewed?"  The dash gives the reader time to contemplate this paradox, enough time to realize that "liquor" is a metaphor for something else--poetry or composing poetry.

The second line is also enigmatic, as we learn that the "Tankard" from which the "liquor" is drunk is "scooped in Pearl--".  It is well known that pearls dissolve in alcohol, so this begs yet another question.  How can a pearl vessel hold an alcoholic beverage without disintegrating?  Again, the dash gives the reader time to contemplate this conundrum.  Perhaps Dickinson meant that the power of poetry cannot be contained or restricted, that it will literally burst out of a vessel that seeks to limit it.  Or, perhaps she meant “pearl” as in “pearl of wisdom.”

The second stanza continues in this enigmatic vein.  Its opening line literally means that Dickinson gets drunk by breathing the air--a ridiculous notion.  Dickinson provides not one but two dashes to give the reader time to ponder the meaning of the line.  Here, we see that Dickinson meant that poetry should be spoken aloud into the air, and good poetry, when heard, could provoke an ecstatic emotional response in the listener similar to inebriation.  This idea is supported by the line that follows when one remembers what dew is.  Dew occurs when the air (which carries the sound of poetry) cools, forcing the moisture it contains to condense out of it and onto the surface of the earth, moistening it and helping plants grow--an important, positive, and beneficial phenomenon.  Thus, Dickinson meant that her poetry figuratively extracts the important meaning from the universe in the same manner that the universe extracts moisture from the air.

The third stanza does not disappoint for being enigmatic, too.  Of all flowers, why did Dickson choose the foxglove?  The foxglove is used to make the drug digitalis, something that Dickinson may have known.  A little digitalis can help with certain heart ailments, but it has what physicians call a narrow therapeutic window, meaning that just a little too much of the drug is deadly.  So, Dickinson viewed herself as capable of composing more great poetry, or "drinking" more "liquor," than bees literally drunk on nectar to the point of being killed by it and than butterflies that have tasted so much nectar that they beg off of having more.

One also may wonder who are the "Landlords" and why the quotation marks?  "Landlords" refers to the keepers of the "inns" of the last line of the previous stanza--those of "molten Blue--".  Here, Dickinson's use of capitalization provides a clue to the meaning as well as to the use of quotation marks.  "Landlords" is a metaphor for "gods" or the Muses.  "Blue" is a metaphor for the sky or heaven--the beginning of a metaphor involving heavenly beings seen in the final stanza.

The final stanza continues the sentiments expressed in the third stanza, implying that Dickinson is able to or will continue in her poetic rapture until "the cows come home."  The "little Tippler" is Dickinson herself.  The final line uses the Dickinson dash in a unique way.  At first, it seems to interrupt the line.  However, Dickinson used it here to build suspense, as in "leaning against the [wait for it, wait for it, wait for it…] sun [gasp!]!"  She even ended with an exclamation point to indicate that the vision of her leaning against the sun is a shock or a surprise--that the power of her poetry is of such a magnitude that even the mighty sun cannot burn it, and as if to say, "Seraphs and Saints, behold the power of poetry!"

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