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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.

  4. The ED Lexicon defines an “existence” as a “lifetime” and a “Dram” as a “drop”. For “dram”, Wikipedia concurs quantitatively: “A fluid dram equals one-eighth of a fluid ounce, the equivalent to two average-size thimbles”. That’s a tiny “Draught” (ED Lex “swig”), whether she’s talking “experience of love” or “a transcendent moment”.

    SK’s reference to F248 and F325 nails the “experience of love” well. As for a “transcendent moment”, perhaps a “dram” suffices, but ED sounds shortchanged. A dram’s better than nada, but there’s a tone of disappointment: “Thanks a lot for the drop of happiness”.

    All well and good, but “They” remains unexplained, an elephant in the room. Surely “They” isn’t a bunch of cinchy angels or stingy merchants on Amherst’s Main Street. ED’s favorite trope when she wants to hide someone’s identity is a pronoun switch that leaves us scratching our heads. The switch in this poem especially puzzles because it’s not a singular/singular, her/him switch unless ED’s using a royal pronoun, e.g., Queen Victoria’s “We are not amused.”

    For this poem, my money’s on just that: “They” is Wadsworth, who graced her life for “seven years” (F267, Line 7, 1855 - 1862), then abandoned her for San Francisco. Was the dram’s price, “Precisely an existence” (a lifetime), worth paying?

    Perhaps, but Stanza 2 sounds unconvincing:

    “They weighed me, Dust by Dust—
    They balanced Film with Film
    Then handed me my Being's worth—
    A single Dram of Heaven!”

  5. Franklin dates F267 "late 1861" and ED heard Wadsworth preach in March 1855, which rounds up to seven years by the rules of arithmetic.

  6. “Unconvincing” is too weak a word. A reread of Stanza 2 with unswitched pronouns screams pain and anger:

    He weighed me, Dust by Dust—
    He balanced Film with Film
    Then handed me my Being's worth—
    A single Dram of Heaven!

  7. Franklin dates and comments on the poem (Work Metadata, 1998):

    “About autumn 1862, in Fascicle 20, on a leaf given by Martha Bianchi to Herbert F. Jenkins in 1929 (lost). A transcript by Mabel Todd supplies the text.

    The Jenkins transcript is unreliable. Mabel Todd, who transcribed the holograph [manuscript in ED’s handwriting], and Martha Bianchi, who published from it, independently agreed on readings differing from his · · · ·.”