I can never be a wine connoisseur. My sense of smell is not keen, and a discriminating olfactory sense is a sine qua non for precise discernment and evaluation. Yes, I know when a wine is downright awful, but given a blind taste test comparing elegant vintage wines and their low-price counterparts, I’ll choose the cheap stuff probably half the time.
The same goes for my appreciation of pictorial art. I skipped the college course in art appreciation. I recognize the beauty of the classics and have my own unschooled preferences, but that’s about it. When my wife thinks about foreign travel, she focuses on museums and art galleries. I think about wandering through exotic cities or quaint neighborhoods, trying new cuisines and quaffing brews with the locals. Sally can sit and revel in a single painting for the same amount of time it takes me to stroll the entire Louvre. Well…almost New Orleans Fishing Charters.
I am led to this musing by contemplation of Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed,” wherein the poet celebrates her enchantment with nature in a playful extended metaphor.
I TASTE A LIQUOR NEVER BREWED
by 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 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!
The poem makes me aware that words and language delight and intoxicate me the way a Chateau Lafitte Rothschild pleases an oenophile, the Uffizi gallery excites an art buff, and Emily gets drunk on warmth, sunshine and clouds.
Savoring Emily’s four quatrains–rolling them about on my tongue and ear–gives me the heady satisfaction that the little lady from Amherst gets from air. Her poem is a synergy of ingredients that gives me a Massachusetts variation of a Rocky Mountain High.
Line one with its direct statement of the metaphor is like the first sip of a perfect martini–stirred, not shaken–sipped from a chilled glass of finest crystal. Her “tankards of pearl” with that key word “scooped” trigger an image of fluffy white clouds, due perhaps to my fondness for ice cream and not to any intention of the poet. Others will respond with their own images. “Vats upon the Rhine” generates vowel music that tickles palate and ear and transports me to Burton-on-Trent and the lively liquor of A. E. Housman’s “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” a favorite poem from my teaching days. Housman was writing about beer, not liquor; still, an intoxicant’s an intoxicant. The first quatrain’s half-rhyme of “pearl” with “alcohol” produces a tang that a perfect rhyme would not convey.
Lines 5 and 6 are my favorites, the olive or lemon twist in the cocktail of my own metaphor. The vowel alliteration of “Inebriate of air am I” enriches the dictionary meaning, an example of sound’s interplay with sense that epitomizes poetry. The first word can be construed as a past participle lacking the concluding “d,” or as a noun. Thus, the line could be paraphrased either as “I am inebriated by or with air” or “I am an inebriate or habitual drunkard whose intoxicant is air.” Both ideas are implicit in Dickinson’s shaping of the sentence, and the duality imports a tinge of drunken confusion and stagger. The exquisite word choice “debauchee” reinforces the long “e” assonance of “Inebriate” and alliterates with “dew” to underline the humorous hyperbole that the poet is an orgiast, in danger of overdosing on dewdrops. “Reeling” begins line 7 with a metrical variation, a trochaic substitution in the established iambic metrical pattern. (Remember your high school English class? An iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by one that is stressed, as in “vermouth;” a trochaic foot is the opposite or reverse, as in “Boodles.”) My head reels, as does the poetic line. The adjective “molten” is arresting in “Inns of molten blue.” I discard the image of inns created by a process of heating something blue until it was liquefied and then pouring it into a mold, and I settle for summer skies that are molten in the sense of being heated so that they glow.
Stanza three makes me giggle tipsily. Bees getting drunk on nectar and being cut off and tossed out of the Foxglove Pub; butterflies swearing off spirituous pollen; and a snockered Belle of Amherst– all are images that strike my funny bone. A happy drunk am I!
I have a wee problem with the concluding stanza. I see seraphs and saints–regular inhabitants of those heavenly inns but free from problems of overindulgence or addiction, hustling to the window to watch Emily stumble out and lean against the sun for balance. “Little tippler” is another epitome of sound supporting sense, the short i’s and consonant l’s (I’m using consonant as an adjective, not a noun) sound like someone taking repetitive sips of liquid. I suck on the pastille trochee “Leaning” in the poem’s concluding line, and taste the giddiness introduced earlier by “Reeling.” (Pastilles in a martini? Metaphorically the spritz of vermouth tempering the icy gin–Noilly Prat befitting Beefeater.)
I have to hiccup when I swallow “seraphs swing their snowy hats.” I’ve never pictured a seraph wearing a hat, snowy or otherwise. Maybe a halo, but I usually reserve those for saints, not angels with six sets of wings. Is it another cloud image? I’m not sure.
Is that lack of surety the poem’s problem? Is that something black floating in my cocktail? Ah, it’s just an eyelash, one of my own. My fault, not the author/bartender’s. I fish it out and finish the drink. Good! I’ll have another.