The Exquisite Liquor: Close Reading Analysis of Emily Dickinson

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

As Emily Dickinson lurches down the streets through endless summer days, drunk on a “liquor never brewed,” she masterfully uses the power of the written word to create a cleverly extended metaphor in her poem “I taste a liquor never brewed–” She begins by telling the reader that she’s drunk on the most decadent alcoholic beverage known to mankind, served to her in an exquisite pearl-studded tankard. She continues developing the intoxication conceit, painstakingly describing how extraordinary this liquor is, but then suddenly reveals to us, in the next stanza, what exactly she’s been intoxicated with.

An “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew,” Dickinson is drunk on the glorious nature she’s surrounded by, dizzied with its magnificent splendor and poignant beauty. It’s forever summer in Emily’s world: the skies are a dazzling azure, the sun refuses to set. All’s right in the world. It’s so grand that even when the so-called landlord–a metaphor for the Creator, it would seem–stops the bees and butterflies from consuming their nectar and drams (their alcohol), Emily decides she “shall but drink the more!”

Though an exclamation point at the end of the third stanza would seem to signify the completion of the sentence, Emily continues the train of thoughts in the final stanza. She draws upon the spiritual, stating that she’ll become even more intoxicated and will let the seraphs and saints watch, as she becomes one with the nature, perhaps in a way transcending to a higher state that’s neither physical nor exactly spiritual, “leaning against the — Sun –”

So what stands out in true Dickinsonian fashion? Emily takes the conventional four-line stanza format and then figuratively flips the table over and defies convention. The haphazard dashes break up the otherwise fairly rhythmic beat of the poem, perhaps a means to let the reader partake of the intoxicated state she’s in as she lurches and reels about, swerving from one train of thoughts to the other. It allows her to bring the reader in more intimately, to become a part of her and let her every condensed thought be one of ours.

But what of content itself? The extended metaphor of drunkenness might be nothing more than an ode to nature, a brief piece where Dickinson revels in the wondrous nature about her. But it might also be more than that: looking closely, the poem seems to almost paradoxical in some respects. Emily describes the physical in near-transcendent, spiritual language, as if she is being elevated to another realm in the last line. On the other hand, she begins the poem with poetic hyperbole as she describes the exquisite liquor, but then deconstructs it to nothing more than air and dew, almost as if she’s torn between the two. Where does she belong? Better yet, where do we belong? Where do we ache to go? Perhaps drinking of this ne’er-brewed liquor can provide the reader with insight.

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