Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Poetry Close-Reading: Emily Dickinson

The first further reading suggestion for ModPo is Emily Dickinson's I Taste A Liqueur Never Brewed. This poem was also part of our first essay assignment. Below is the poem followed by my essay and some of the peer reviews and comments I received.  I include them because I appreciate the feedback and don't want to lose the comments when the forums are eventually taken down.




A four-stanza poem, "I taste a liquor never brewed" brings visions of heaven's pearly gates with angels and saints as well as the passing of time via the Earth's four seasons. Yet this poem is more than a metaphor for religion. In this close reading, I will attempt to bring forth my interpretation of this work by Emily Dickinson line by line and stanza by stanza.

"I taste a liquor never brewed--/From Tankards scooped in Pearl--/Not all the Vats upon the Rhine/Yield such an Alcohol!"
This first stanza evokes images of old English pubs, drinking ale with your fellow towns-men from large tankards - generally having a good time. Perhaps it's a celebration of the end of a long winter and the start of a new year and the beginning of spring? "Never brewed" could be alluding to the fact that springtime is before harvest time, so there is no grain to be brewed or turned into alcohol. In this way, "liquor" is a metaphor, but for what? Poetry or imagination would be very fitting here and would make this poem meta-poetic.
A tankard is a large stein or mug, usually made if wood, pewter or silver and often has a hinged lid on top. The phrase "scooped in Pearl" puzzles me. Does it mean that the tankards are made from pearls or maybe the tankard is a large pearl that has been scooped out. OR is the tankard used as a scoop to get the "Pearly" - fine - intoxicating words/poetry?
The Rhine is one of the largest rivers in Europe, going through Switzerland, Germany and The Netherlands (Source: wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhine). All are areas which are well known for producing high quality beer and ales. Dickinson is saying that her imagination, words and poetry are finer than the world's most reknown beers.

"Inebriate of Air -- am I --/And Debauchee of Dew--/Reeling--thro endless summer days--/From inns of Molten Blue--"
In this stanza we imagine the poet, drunk - exhilarated by stimulating conversation, or mayhap by the fresh summer air; totally unrestrained and freethinking. Her imagination knows no bounds! The Dew here is the moisture of her own sweat and tears, possibly an emotional response as she is reeling through endless long days of summer.
"Reeling" has several definitions, according to dictionary.com. It can mean to stagger or "sway from dizziness"; to whirl or "turn round and round". An alternative definition could be to "reel off" which is to talk or write quickly. I do not know for certain, but perhaps Dickinson found a large portion of her Muse in the heat of summer.
To carry on the meta-poetic theme, in the final line of the second stanza "Molten Blue" could easily refer to blue liquid ink "burning" words, metaphors and imagination onto sheets of paper.

"When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee/Out of the Foxglove's door--/When Butterflies--renounce their "Drams"--/I shall but drink the more!"
Dickinson uses quote marks twice here - once around "Landlords" and again around "Drams". This makes me think that these words are meant to be metaphorical. But what are they metaphors of? A literal reading of the first two lines could be that humans are the landlords and we turn the bee out of the foxglove's door when we pick the flowers. This literal reading doesn't really mesh with the third line however. If we follow the seasons, the first stanza is spring, the second summer; this stanza therefore would be Autumn. In the Autumn flowers fade and die. Nature and weather would therefore be the Landlords, wilting the flowers, turning the bees out. In this application of reading the third line fits with the first two. The "drams" are the small sips of nectar which the butterflies drink. In the Autumn, they "renounce thier "Drams"", mate and often die soon after.
Dickinson, however, isn't turned out nor does she renounce her "drams". Instead, she drinks even more deeply of her Muse and imagination, writing even more of her fine words.

"Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats--/And Saints--to windows run--/To see the little Tippler/Leaning against the -- Sun --/"
It is now Winter and Dickenson - the "little Tippler" - finally stops drinking the fine, intoxicating liquor of her Possibility. Surrounded by snowflakes which have been tossed about by the angels, she is being looked at and watched from the windows by "Saints" (those who were "good" and stayed inside, not partaking of the fine Possibilities the year brings).  Does she feel sorry for these "sensible" people? I think she does; they are not part of her Possibility, they are looking through the windows but can not come into it, as much as she might invite them. They don't want to do the work required to enter through the doors. All is not lost, however - we leave our tired "little Tippler" leaning against the sun, waiting for spring to come so that we might imbibe of her Possibility once more.

I think that you are right about the meta-poetic nature of this poem, Muir. You noticed the seasonal references, which I kind of glossed over in my own essay, and I think that you are correct in giving them some significance. Your interpretation of the 'Saints' at the windows is great, and original! And the 'Molten Blue' ink...I missed that, too. A good reading! - Katherine
Muir, I enjoyed the way that you tied this poem to the previous poems we studied by Emily. You mentioned the seasons as I did in my essay, but had a different take on their order. Your mention of "molten blue" being a possible metaphor for ink was interesting, and not something I had occurred to me. You discussed the form of the poem, but there was no mention of the dashes or their meaning. You did discuss the poem in good detail, and I especially enjoyed your last paragraph with the excellent last line: "All is not lost, however - we leave our tired "little Tippler" leaning against the sun, waiting for spring to come so that we might imbibe of her Possibility once more.'" Very enjoyable read, thank you.  - Melissa
This was quite a good essay that examines how the form (dashes are mentioned however) that fully examines the story of the poem. I like how they question certain aspects of the poem like the pearl that they do not understand. It lends itself to the close reading at hand. - Anonymous peer review
I thought this was a great interpretation because it was supported by the poem, by quotes. I also think each section describes a change in season, but the course of "intoxication" for Dickinson does not end once the current season does, she drinks more, into the next season. I also agree that the saints are looking out, that they are spectators watching as she participates, as she dwells in possibility. - Lyana
Muir, I appreciated your line-by-line approach. It was well-organized and easy to follow. Sorry I am tired, and this won't be an in-depth critique.
I also noted the quotations marks on Landlord and dram, and thought that they were metaphors. Ur-metaphors? Metaphors BEYOND the central conceit of intoxication. My interpretation was that the Landlord was a reference to an authority figure; and that drams was a measure of some sort of drink that was so meagre or insubstantial that it could easily be renounced. (My thesis was different, so from that point I went in a different direction.)
I really like the idea of Molten Blue being ink; I've come across in a couple of other essays and my response is always, "Dang, why didn't I think of that?" Great thinking.       - Elizabeth
Hi Muir,
I think you did a really nice job here of reading line by line, in that you weren't afraid to translate each line into your own words for what you referred to as a "literal" reading before delving into the "metaphorical" reading. That's a great strategy with which to approach this and other especially difficult poems in the course, because I think often our first impulse might be to do the more "complicated" reading where it's easy to get lost or frustrated. One thing I'll say is that a line-by-line approach is just one way to do a close reading -- while it seems paradoxical, you can do a close reading of the poem as a whole, that is, read deeply into what the whole poem's strategy is, what kind of a progression the speaker makes from A to B. I think you were definitely heading there in talking about your reading of the poem's metaphors as "reeling" through the seasons (a very cool notion that I really truly hadn't thought of before!), and I think you could go even further! Nice work! -Lily (ModPo TA)
 I think you did a great job wit your essay Muir, your in depth look at the poem caught some of details I totally missed. I love how you picked up on the subtle changes in the seasons from winter in the first stanza of the poem and autumn in the third, it was easier to spot the other seasons but your grasp on those subtle hint made for a unique analysis. You also did a good job looking at the punctuation in the piece, as well as following the story. All in all great essay! - Cassandrea
I gained some new perspectives on this poem from reading your analysis.  I loved how you described the dew as the poet's own sweat and tears and the molten blue as the ink on the page (though did they have blue ink in Emily's time?)  You nicely summarized the poem, and mostly focused your analysis on how Emily is impacted or inspired by the changing seasons.  I liked how you incorporated some meta-anlysis into your reading and would have liked to see more of it.  I think at times you have to stretch to make your season analysis fit the poem.   
You don't specifically mention the dashes or stanziac form.  Nor do you notice the change in point of view.   In fact, according to your analysis the last stanza fits right in with the rest of the poem in terms of following the seasons. You read it as the Saints and Seraphs and Tippler are watching Emily during the winter. - Anonymous peer review

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