Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Emily Dickinson overcoming time and space

There is one poem in which a thoroughly inebriated speaker enjoys her lack of control and is not overcome by it: a rare portrait that develops a fantasy of achieved delight.

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 element of fantasy in this poem is pronounced; so is the presence of the ingénue persona who appears so persistently in Dickinson’s love poems. The two combine to give the poem its childish air. Yet it is precisely that quality of make-believe which permits the speaker, and the poem, to maintain the happiness of which she boasts.
     The poem begins with a riddle. What kind of liquor is never brewed, comes from tankards made of pearl, is far superior to any ordinary, earthly beverage? The answer: air, or dew. Even as the opening stanza clearly contrasts “real” liquor (from “Vats upon the Rhine”) to another sort – not of this earth, imaginary, or symbolic, so as the poem develops its conceit of being drunk upon air, it steadily compares literal and figurative experience, experience in nature and in the mind.
     Surely, air was never brewed; thus it answers the requirements of the riddle. But neither is it literally a liquor. We can interpret the metaphor: to be “Inebriate of Air” is to be exhilarated, excited, overwhelmingly delighted by summer skies. Yet as the poem elaborates this conceit, it is not its symbolism but its drama that engages the reader. When the “Debauchee of Dew” begins her drunken progress from airy inn to airy inn, her activity takes on its own reality, one that overpowers its literal counterpart. This is fantasy, and it is a delightful image. It is, in fact, an image of delight embodied.
     If the extravagance of her emotion is essential to this situation, so is its lasting power. These summer days are “endless.” We recall how important the idea of permanence is to Dickinson’s ideal of delight.
     But summer in nature’s world is never endless, no matter how it may seem in mid-July. In stanza three, time surfaces, only to be triumphantly repudiated by this poem’s speaker. The inebriate of air has her real-life counterparts: bees and butterflies who likewise reel through the sky, with flowers as pubs; like her, drunken on the summery nectar. Yet bees and butterflies are subject to seasonal time; drinking hours are up when autumn comes.
     “I shall but drink the more!” How she gets to overcome time, she doesn’t say. But the final stanza shows her drinking on into eternity. “Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats – / And Saints to windows run – .” The original riddle provides a clue, since the liquor that she drinks from opulent goblets (does “scooped in Pearl” mean that they are decorated with pearl or that the liquid that they hold is like pearl?) never was of this earth. Not “real” alcohol in the first place, its inebriation is likewise not “real”; neither are the actions to which it incites the drinker. Since her activity has always been fantasy, taking place in a mental sky, she has no difficulty perpetuating the fun. Yet her intoxication is more than fun; it is also a sign of power. In this poem, lack of control, diminutive stature, are coyly representative of their opposites, as the final audacious image, of the “little Tippler / Leaning against the – Sun – “ indicates. (In another version of the line Dickinson has the little tippler “From Manzanilla come!” That makes her a world traveler; this more exciting image makes her a space traveler.) She has overcome both space and time by the poem’s conclusion, such is the strength, the power of her emotion.
     This poem is another form of the celebration of delight. It perpetuates and praises the feeling, not through incantation, as in “Mine – by the Right of the White Election!” but through outright fantasy. Both poems, however, achieve their prolongment of the emotional experience with a rhetoric that places the action of the poem in the realm of the imagination and explicitly, almost challengingly, opposes ordinary reality in the process. Here, in the space of the mind, delight can be maintained, delight can be controlled, delight can be praised. A contrast with nature and its kind of time is an essential aspect of the poems which describe delight achieved. – Suzanne Juhasz

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