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27 December 2012

I took one Draught of Life—

I took one Draught of Life—
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!
          The poet discusses what this experience cost her: "Precisely" her existence. That was the going rate, the market value. It's a transaction, though; one agreed upon by both parties. We're not sure who "they" are—the ones who established the terms of the deal. But they established the price and the poem's speaker paid. The second stanza details the scene: she was somehow weighed, her physical body, the "Dust"; and her skin or soul, the "Film." Once that was done the merchants measured out as much Heaven as she was worth: one dram.
          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!


  1. Thank you so much for your blog! I've had to help out an Italian student with this poem, and your comments were of great help to me. Barbara.

  2. I read this Draught of Life not as a discreet episode in the poet's life but the gulping down of the whole thing, Life, and it was worth a single Dram of Heaven, a startling equation: an existence for a Dram, reminds me, in the weighing, of the Egyptian myth of Anubis, after one dies, weighing the dead person's heart against a feather.

    1. I'm not sure why I fixated on an experience of love for this poem. I was probably reading biographical material; some of the scholars tend to interpret Dickinson's poetry through her life experience.

      I read it now as a glorious insight, a transcendant moment that consumed her. She could only intake as much as her Being was -- at this point in her life, a dram!

  3. Maybe a dram at any point in life, if it really comes from Heaven, is all we can take.