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10 November 2011

I bring an unaccustomed wine

I bring an unaccustomed wine
To lips long parching
Next to mine,
And summon them to drink;

Crackling with fever, they essay,
I turn my brimming eyes away,
And come next hour to look.

The hands still hug the tardy glass—
The lips I would have cooled, alas,
Are so superfluous Cold—

I would as soon attempt to warm
The bosoms where the frost has lain
Ages beneath the mould—

Some other thirsty there may be
To whom this would have pointed me
Had it remained to speak—

And so I always bear the cup
If, haply, mine may be the drop
Some pilgrim thirst to slake—

If, haply, any say to me
"Unto the little, unto me,"
When I at last awake.
                                              - F126 (1859)  132

Literally this poem might be taken to mean that the poet gave a glass of wine to a very feverish person in hopes it would be restorative but that the person died anyway; and further that she now carries a cup with her everywhere in case she runs into another dying person so that she, following in the footsteps and teachings of Jesus, might wake in heaven to his commendation. However, this would all be too farfetched. The restorative cup must mean something else.
            The key to the poem perhaps lies in the fifth and sixth stanzas, first where she thinks the dying soul could have pointed her to other thirsty souls, perhaps friends and associates; and second the phrase “pilgrim thirst.” As pilgrims are those who travel to a place of spiritual significance, she must be intending to minister to those parched for spiritual sustenance.  
            Since Dickinson was not noted for evangelical fervor, it is unlikely she intends to preach the Gospel at the deathbeds of the unsaved. What she has to offer is an “unaccustomed wine” – which wouldn’t be a traditional Christian message as New England was fairly saturated with Christianity at that time. Even non-believers would be familiar with the basic tenets, particularly those basics involving belief, salvation, and eternal life.
            But Dickinson espouses in verse and letters her belief that Paradise is a royal version of earth. The Bee and Breeze and Butterfly stand in for the Holy Trinity (F23), the daisy and spring for being reborn, and dawn for the magnificence of Heaven. Once in heaven souls will be like kings and queens, ennobled. It has nothing to do with mouthing pieties and going to church each Sunday. Neither does Dickinson hold much truck with talk of hell and the long wait of dead  saints for their resurrection.
            Instead, in F67, she bemoans a woman who died without the “joy” and “bliss” of knowing she was soon to wear a crown and so ended simply a “meek apparelled thing.” What brings joy and bliss, Dickinson specifies in F77 where once we “claim the rank to die” we then get crown, coach, chamber, attendants – the whole works. And so I wonder if the “unaccustomed wine” might be the good news that the journey past death is a glorious and transcendent one – and death should therefore be welcomed gladly.
            In 1913, The Atlantic Monthly published an essay by Martha Hale Shackford that said in part that Dickinson was “forever inspiring her readers to a profound conception of high destinies.” And it may be this that Dickinson is trying to do here.

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