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03 November 2018

Exhiliration — is within —

Exhiliration — is within —
There can no Outer Wine
So royally intoxicate
As that diviner Brand

The Soul achieves — Herself —
To drink — or set away
For Visitor — Or Sacrament —
'Tis not of Holiday

To stimulate a Man
Who hath the Ample Rhine
Within his Closet — Best you can
Exhale in offering.
J383 (1863)  Fr645

Oh to have a bit of that intoxicating joy that Dickinson writes about from time to time! It punctuates some of her most popular poems and is the polar opposite of her Gothic horror poems.

In the gay and charming 'I taste a liquor never brewed', for example, she is an 'Inebriate of air', a 'little Tippler / Leaning against the – Sun!' (F207).  That same year, 1861, Dickinson describes an irrepressible inner ecstasy as 'A Diagram – of Rapture!' (F212). In perhaps my favorite of these poems, she claims that 'Exultation is the going / Of an inland soul to sea', a 'divine intoxication' (F143). In other poems she depicts piercing joys, cosmic highs, and often transcendental experiences of Nature.
I find that Georgia O'Keefe's paintings often
reflecta deep and mystical ecstasy.

The current poem promises to give us a little more insight into inner ecstasies, but ends up cloaked as all mysteries are. It begins with a claim: it is possible to experience, even possess, something 'royally intoxicate', something that doesn't come from any 'Outer Wine'. It is 'diviner' than any happiness the finest liquers, riches, bonanzas, or foreign travels might offer.
        Some joys invite us to enter the sacred – or perhaps the inverse: a special place, a piece of music, meditation, dancing – poetry. We might at times want to invite a guest into our sacred realm. We might choose to experience the exhiliration sacramentally as a holy ritual. In this poem Dickinson describes not only exhiliration and perhaps enlightenment, but also empowerment. The Soul can achieve; the Soul can dispense.

The third and last stanza is difficult. A man with 'Ample Rhine' in his wine cabinet might be a good and worldly man, the Rhine wine standing for vitality and robust goodness; a man who might be stimulated to begin achieving his own diviner intoxication. Or, and I think this more likely, it might refer to a man whose Soul has already achieved an ample supply of the 'diviner Brand'.
        Why should the poet consider how to stimulate such a man – and for what purpose? The Emily Dickinson Lexicon's first definition of 'stimulate' is 'To excite, rouse, or animate to action by means of a motive. Perhaps the desired 'action' and the underlying motive would be the realization of a soul mate, a worthy Guest to share her inner wine – and someone who could reciprocate.
        In any case, Dickinson's prescribed stimulant is to 'Exhale in offering'. When we are full of wine, our breath reflects it. An exhalation of divine intoxicant would have not just odor, but power. The key word is 'offering'.  I am reminded of Old Testament offerings – blood sacrifices with savoury smoke to please the Lord while carrying prayers. I wonder if Dickinsons exhalations – her gnomic poems, letters, and conversation – might not be such an offering.


  1. I love how this poem begins with exhilaration and ends with exhale. The words rhyme beautifully. And the meanings, to me at least, seem balanced. Exhilaration is a drawing in -- like the breath before laughter. Exhale is a letting go, a giving out. It is a kind of offering.

    I think the wine in the last stanza is the "diviner Brand". Someone who has realized this exhilaration cannot keep it for himself. It must be offered to others -- as through a poem, exhaled.

    1. Thank you. I love the exhilaration / exhale pairing you point out. I hadn't thought about it. Wonderful.

  2. To think of a poem as an exhalation is beautiful, as it literally is so when read out loud. I try to remember to read these poems out loud, as they are meant, but too often forget. Now and then I will get out a guitar and sing them over a chord structure, which is even better. You can really feel the exquisite sonic qualities of the exhalation then. In fact by doing this I have come to the conclusion that at least some of them were originally written as song in ED's head, to a tune.

    Exhalation is also visceral, to feel someone's breath is the most intimate thing, stimulating in a physical sense perhaps. This poem made it into my dreams last night, something about someone starved of love being breathed on by a lover, and how much that could mean.

    And what would it mean to exhale "best you can"? I believe it would mean writing/saying/singing the most beautifully apt words (poetry) you can to try to match that exhilaration felt in the soul. A sacrament.

    I like the two ways you've read the man with ample rhine wine in his closet. You write, "A man with 'Ample Rhine' in his wine cabinet might be a good and worldly man, the Rhine wine standing for vitality and robust goodness; a man who might be stimulated to begin achieving his own diviner intoxication." Yes! If that man were me (and, ahem, it is, though the wine be a different kind) then this poem, this exhalation, would remind me that there is a deeper sort of exhilaration than the good-time holiday kind. It does, indeed, inspire me to reach for a deeper kind of joy, that "diviner brand".

    Then you write, "Or, and I think this more likely, it might refer to a man whose Soul has already achieved an ample supply of the 'diviner Brand'." If you take the second meaning, then I'm feeling Charles Wadsworth as the man with ample rhine wine in his closet here, if only because I just read this description of Wadsworth that Larry B cited in a comment to an earlier post.

    "In 1863, after a year of Charles Wadsworth’s preaching at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, George Burrowes (1811-1894), one of the pioneer Presbyterian ministers and educators who planted Presbyterianism in California, wrote his Impressions of Dr. Wadsworth as a minister:

    “The very appearance of the man in the pulpit shows his abhorrence of claptrap and cant. You see that self is left in the background. . . . He shrinks from public notoriety, public demonstrations, and public applause. He possesses eminently, so much so that it is a deficiency in his character, the very unusual disposition to undervalue himself and his productions. He cannot understand how he could ever be viewed as a preacher of mark and power. The crowds that have ever hung around his ministry, are to him alone a mystery. After sermons under which all hearts in a crowded congregation are melted down, and recover from their breathless and even painful attention with admiration and tears, he alone will sit down overcome with a sense of failure and of little worth in so magnificent an effort. Nor is this feeling of personal shortcoming and unworthiness a mere pretense, a maneuver for drawing forth expressions of admiration. It is a deep, honest conviction, resulting from a constitutional peculiarity that can never be removed. A humility so unfeigned, allied with so much greatness, and mellowed, no less than deepened, by divine grace, throws a great charm around the character, and gives an attractiveness seldom met in such a world."

    Anderson, C.A. and C.M. Drury. 1955. San Francisco Journal of George Burrowes. Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, 33(3): 157-180.

    1. Thank you for sharing Larry's citation -- very apt here. And how lovely to think of you putting music to ED's poems. I can only imagine it but I can almost hear the chords. I've enjoyed the YouTubes and other links commenters have shared of polished, professional musical pieces that give new depth to and even insight into Dickinson poems, but chanting over chords -- I'd love that. (Now that I write 'chanting' I'm reminded of Harold Bloom's comment that Whitman is for chanting. Now that I say that I'm reminded of a Dickinson scholar who told me she chants Dickinson in her morning jogs.)

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  4. No wonder ED complained about alterations of her purloined, published poems: editors are so anal about correcting their pet peeves. Franklin religiously insists on correcting ED’s lovely misspelling “opon” to “upon” and then blindly leaves unmedicated the obviously sore thumb of this poem’s Line 1 Word 1, “Exhiliration”.

    She no doubt felt she was spitting into the wind. I empathize.

  5. The exhilaration/exhiliration trivia trail just got longer.

    Johnson (1950) silently corrected ED’s spelling both in this poem, F645, and in F1157, ‘Exhilaration is the breeze’.
    Franklin (1998), also silently, reverted to ED’s misspelling in both poems. Could it be that Franklin, editing in our computer era of exact-word searches, felt he should leave the title lines as ED spelled them?