Saturday, November 09, 2013

ModPo 2013 Assignment #1: Enlightenment, Better Than Drunkenness, Better Than Sex: On Dickinson's "I taste a liquor never brewed"

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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 -- thro 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 --

In your short essay, do a close reading of this poem of 500 words. Use as a model the close readings done in the several filmed discussions of other poems by Dickinson.

The first thing I notice about the poem is that it is a ballad: four quatrains make up the poem, it has a ballad meter or the first line is an iambic tetrameter followed by an iambic trimeter and so on, there is also a rhyme scheme of ABCB (with the exception of the first line where Pearl is "forced" to rhyme with Alcohol").

The first stanza deals with the "un-brewed" liquor which is assumed to be precious given that the speaker drinks from it from "Tankards scooped in Pearl." It is also of a certain quality because the speaker compares it to "Alcohol" from the vats upon the Rhine (presumably cities from France, Switzerland and Germany that produce wine and beer or it might be referring to the precious waters of the Rhine itself). From liquid, the metaphor shifts to air ("inebriate of Air --am I--") in the second stanza and then proceeds to dew, presenting a picture of a drunken speaker reeling from "inns of Molten Blue" or the sky.

The third stanza comically identifies bees and butterflies as fellow drinkers of the liquor mentioned in stanza 1, further stating that the speaker can out-drink them when they have given up. The last stanza turns to heaven, making references to angels (seraphs) and saints running to watch the speaker, the "little Tippler," leaning against the sun, completing the picture of the unapologetic drunk rejoicing in her "liquor," supported by no less than the sun, a metaphor for God.

At first, I saw a Dickinson acting in a Whitmanian way: thoroughly enjoying herself, thoroughly enjoying what is there, drinking up everything indiscriminately. It is a delightful look at the speaker "going wild." One way to read it is to refer to the liquor as nature itself. One can "drink" it in without ill effects and one can even say that it provides a real ecstasy to whoever drinks it in. However, viewed from 2013 eyes, nature is not unlimited. It only seems that way but even nature has limits.

Another way to read it is to relate the liquor to art and creativity -- poetry, the possibility that she referred to "I dwell in Possibility." Dickinson draws images from nature and contrasts them the unwholesome activity of getting drunk to something ultimately more sublime. In a boast, the speaker says even angels and saints would want to watch her oblivion. And, as a drunkard would lean upon a wall outside a tavern, the speaker has no less than the sun, than God Himself, to lean upon.

Here, Dickinson is preoccupied with heaven as contrasted to Whitman who celebrates the earth, earthliness, the flesh, what is concrete. In the end, the poem is an invitation to taste the liquor of her particular brand of enlightenment. Her poem takes the form of the ballad to capture a celebratory mood. But even in a light and comic mood, with images of drunken butterflies and bees (come to think of it...these are metaphors for sex!), even with the frame of what could be earthly and lewd, Dickinson is inviting the reader to the opposite of this: to delight in enlightenment. In short, try this, it's better than getting drunk, it's even better than sex!

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