“I taste a liquor never brewed” (F 208A, J214)

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
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
From Manzanilla come! (Leaning against the – Sun -)

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles, ca. 1860-1862. First published in Springfield Daily Republican (4 May 1861), 8, from the lost copy; also Springfield Weekly Republican (11 May 1861), 6. Poems (1890), 34, from the fascicle, with both alternatives adopted, under the title “The May Wine.” Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Miller suggests a few contemporary influences for this poem that opens Fascicle 12: Longfellow’s “Catawba Wine” and Emerson’s “Bacchus,” both of which Dickinson would have known. The bee in the foxglove echoes Keats’ “O Solitude.” The unforgettable lines describing the speaker as “Inebriate of air – am I – / And Debauchee of Dew –,” also recall Emerson’s description of  “The Humble-Bee” as “Insect lover of the son” and “Epicurean of June.” “Manzanilla” is, according to Dickinson’s Lexicon, a “City on southern coat of Cuba; important commercial center known for the export of rum,” which becomes a figure for “drunkenness, inebriation.” Another source is Emerson’s important essay, “The Poet,” published in his collection, Essays: Second Series in 1844 and  based on a lecture (attended in New York by Walt Whitman), where he affirmed:

The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind;” not with the intellect, used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service, and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life; or, as the ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone, but with the intellect inebriated by nectar. … The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body. … Milton says, that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods, and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl.  For poetry is not “Devil’s wine,” but God’s wine.

It is intriguing to note that Dickinson’s Webster’s gives a gendered definition for “debauchee:” “A man given to intemperance, or bacchanalian excesses. But chiefly, a man habitually lewd.”

Many readings focus on the comedy, the intoxication of and in nature, and the final stanza’s opening to the universe as a sign of power and accomplishment. Karl Keller opines: “Her drunk poet … is not at all an Emerson intellectual speaking wildly but, oxymoronically and humorously, a drunk Congregationalist, a religious drunk: the pure transcendental mind and chaste transcendental body have become by worldly standards debauched and by heavenly ones heretical.” In the context of the Fascicle, this poem sets the stage for experiences of “transport.”

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