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Upon first read of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed,” it appears to be a relatively straightforward piece whose main goal is to praise nature as a source of beauty and inspiration. Conventions of romanticism are employed to achieve this goal, and in Dickinson’s hands it succeeds wonderfully. However, when reading the poem with a consideration of Dickinson’s wit and aversion to poetic convention, another layer is discovered that elevates the poem above a simple exercise in romanticism. Ultimately, the poem stands as both an homage to, and a satire of, the romantic tradition, revealing an intellectual depth that would become a core component of modernist poetry.
In the first two stanzas of Dickinson’s poem, a figurative drunkenness is described that immediately invokes John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” Dickinson describes that the “liquor never brewed” on which she is drunk is nature itself: “Inebriate of air — am I / And Debauchee of Dew,” while Keats credits his drunk-like state to “the viewless wings of Poesy.” Each continue in their poetic intoxication to muse on nature’s majesty. Keats famously admires “the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild,” and Dickinson feverishly devours the “endless summer days” and “inns of molten Blue” that are gifted to her by nature’s generosity. It is clear that Dickinson admires romantic poetry enough to work within its confines, but she is not comfortable working within such confines without acknowledging their limitations.
There is an ease and fluidity in Keats’ verse, common in most romantic poetry, that is not only absent in Dickinson’s, but seems to be intentionally countered. Dickinson’s poem, especially the first stanza, is packed with hard consonance:“I taste a liquor never brewed —From Tankards scooped in Pearl —Not all the Frankfort BerriesYield such an Alcohol!”Additionally, the repeated use of dashes and the almost manic language (“When Butterflies — renounce their ‘drams’ —/ I shall but drink the more!”) adds a fragmentation and madness to the poem, suggesting a mysterious disquiet beneath its idealistic surface.
The romantics, even when attempting to honor nature’s immense destructive power, often couldn’t help but be intoxicated by its beauty. Percy Shelley, in his poem “Mont Blanc,” refers to his natural surroundings as an “awful scene,” and in the same sentence employs dreamy language to paint a scene of breathtaking beauty, describing trees as “Children of elder time, in whose devotion / The chainless winds still come and ever came / To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging…” This undermines the intimidating presence of Mont Blanc itself and gives us the impression of nature contemplated from a distance. This back-and-forth between a doe-eyed reverence for nature’s beauty and a disconnected respect of its immense power was common with the romantics—especially those living in England, where the land and people alike had been largely domesticated.
Being an American, the nature that Dickinson was familiar with was likely much more combative and mysterious than the pastoral English countrysides admired by Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley and the like. The romantics were known to observe their natural surroundings with a childlike wonder not afforded to Americans whose homeland was known to be expansive, wild, sparsely populated and—as far as European migrants were concerned—young. By placing the word “Landlords” in quotes, Dickinson reminds us of the absurdity of the concept—that in fact the land lords over us, and though it may on occasion offer tranquility with its intoxicating “drams”, it may also quake, storm or burn uncontrollably.
With these observations in mind, and with a general knowledge of Dickinson as an often wry-minded poet with a distaste for convention, a satirical undercurrent becomes hard to ignore in the poem. Dickinson’s reaction to her natural surroundings is at times plainly absurd. For example, when she describes herself as “Reeling — thro’ endless summer days” one can’t help but think of her many poems dealing with themes of death, grief and the burdensome weight of the intellect. Such hyperbolic optimism stands in obvious contrast to the majority of Dickinson’s work, thus acting as an indicator that her satirical wit may be engaged in order to say something besides the obvious.
While the fervent optimism in the poem’s first half might call attention to the cloying, overly precious view of nature demonstrated by many romantics, it is the poem’s final two stanzas that drive the point home. In the third stanza, Dickinson depicts landlords and butterflies neglecting nature’s sweet gifts to her benefit, stating “I shall but drink the more!” Reading these lines with the satirical tone in mind, she seems to be poking fun at a pompousness that underlies romantic poetry and suggests that the poet is more capable of appreciating nature—and life, than the reader. Her comical indulgence in the simple joys of nature is so novel, even angels and saints look on in admiration: “Seraphs swing their snowy Hats — / And Saints — to windows run / To see the little Tippler / Leaning against the — Sun!”
Those final two lines seem to stand as the sort of punchline to the poem’s satirical undercurrent. The hyphen before “Sun” gives the line’s rhyme a clumsy, off-the-cuff feel that comically throws the nature-drunk poet into the sun’s raging fires. It is akin to Keats, drunk on poesy, stumbling into a badger’s den, or Coleridge spilling hot tea on his already burned foot while lost in thought beneath the Lime-Tree Bower. If we make the leap and assume that, in the closing line, Dickinson is killing off the bubbly character she created for the poem, she would be performing the execution using a central characteristic of romanticism: imaginative and emotional spontaneity. This may be Dickinson pointing out the incongruity between such playful spontaneity and nature’s unpredictable force. She reminds the reader, as a seasoned hunter might, that while beautiful, one would be wise not to get too lost in thought when immersed in nature’s uncertainties.
In this way, Dickinson seems to favor a more practical, realistic view of nature. She plays with several tropes of romanticism in order to point out the ignorance and reductiveness in the genre’s view of nature as a servant of the poet and an infinite source of inspiration. However, the language she employs when doing so is undeniably gorgeous, allowing it to stand alone wonderfully as a playful homage to romanticism and the natural world. The coexistence of beauty and veiled satire adds a complex intellectual dimension to the piece—a central characteristic of modernism. Dickinson’s obvious admiration for the romantics may have made her a reluctant pioneer of modernism, but she seems to state in her poem “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” that the exaggerated reverence and emotional spontaneity of romanticism was inadequate for expressing the increasing complexities of modern existence.
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