I'll tell you what I paid—
Precisely an existence—
The market price, they said.
They weighed me, Dust by Dust—
They balanced Film with Film,
Then handed me my Being's worth—
A single Dram of Heaven!
F396 (1862) J1725
Dickinson returns to the language of trade to express the depth of her love. A very proper Yankee! Readers are invited into her inner circle: "I'll tell you what I paid," she teases. But the transaction was anything but light-hearted. For a little bit of heaven she paid her whole "Being's worth."
The "Draught of Life" in the first line is re-styled a "Dram of Heaven" in the last. They are the same thing, and it seems clear that both refer to an experience of love. Perhaps it was the consummation of love, or the pledge of love, or a very very special walk and heart-to-heart talk. A Draught of Life would be a big gulp or swig. Sounds heady and good! But then we learn that the draught was "A single Dram of Heaven." A "dram" is a small amount; it can also refer to a small amount of liquor. A very short but exceedingly sweet drink!
|1860s dram glasses: not very big!|
Leaving the language of the market for something more straightforward, it seems the speaker was willing to give up everything in her life for one experience with love. She doesn't say if it was, after all, worth it. I think the reader is supposed to marvel at the steep price rather than pity the speaker. Perhaps we are to wonder at the high value of the beloved. What would we pay?
In F325, "There came a Day—at Summer's full," Dickinson describes a day with a beloved where they pledged an eternal and heavenly union. That day, she thought, was so wonderful that it was "for the Saints— / Where Resurrections—be." This might very well be the Draught of Life or Dram of Heaven she refers to in this poem. In F248, "One Life of so much Consequence," Dickinson writes that for one life, "One Pearl," she "would pay—/My Soul's entire income—/In ceaseless—salary."
It's a very romantic notion, despite the mercantile metaphor. What makes the present poem a bit fun is the image of the poet being weighted on a scale by some nameless merchants who decide how much Heaven her earthly existence entitles her to. Just a single dram, it turns out!