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Wampler, Stephanie: "“I taste a liquor never brewed”: 150 Years of Riddled Reverie"

“I taste a liquor never brewed”: 150 Years of Riddled Reverie

Stephanie Wampler, Haywood Community College

Like many others in the 19th century, Emily Dickinson loved riddles—“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies”—and she often used riddles to describe natural things such as a snake in the grass or a hummingbird or woodpecker.

Most of her riddles are acknowledged as such, but there is one poem typically considered to be a nature poem, that, under close examination, reveals itself as a riddle: “I taste a liquor never brewed.” Since its publication in 1861, most readers have assumed that the speaker is Dickinson herself, drunk on the delights of spring, and critical analysis has focused on that interpretation. Not everyone has agreed, however, and in the past 150 years, readers and scholars have occasionally argued that the speaker is not Dickinson but other things such as a hummingbird, a bee, or a daisy.

Although all these interpretations have merit, none of them quite makes sense of all the stanzas of the poem—especially the last stanza, and none of them really makes a reader think, “Ah-ha! That’s it! Of course! How did I miss that!”

But there is one theory that does, that makes sense of all the stanzas of the poem, its publication history, and the actual history of New England in 1860 and 1861. In this theory, the poem is a riddle, and the speaker is a specific and well-known world traveler familiar with the lands and wines of Europe as well as New England. The story of that theory is the heart of my presentation: “I taste a liquor never brewed: 150 Years of Riddled Reverie.”