thirst

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.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

This one is challenging to me. I’m not sure what Dickinson is getting at–it’s certainly metaphorical, whatever it is. I can’t imagine she actually wants to go gallivanting all over New England, pushing wine on dying people.

The central image that arises in this poem, and which must be key to understanding it, is that of thirst. In the first stanza, Dickinson describes “lips long parching” to which she offers a drink.

The next few stanzas offer up more subtle references to thirst. In the second stanza, we get a sharp contrast between eyes “Crackling with fever” and the speaker’s own “brimming eyes”–a contrast between heat and liquid, hot and cool. The third stanza gives us hands grasping the glass, the subject of the speaker’s ministrations having died unsated, thirst unslaked despite the proximity of the drink. The fourth stanza offers the image of the frozen dead–moisture locked away in frost. At this point, they are surely beyond the transformative power of wine or any liquid.

With the fifth stanza, we get back to very direct descriptions and mentions of thirst. “Some other thirsty there may be,” the speaker imagines, “And so I always bear the cup.” And then the thirst and liquid language pours out, as the speaker envisions the “drop” that will “slake” someone else’s “thirst.”

She ends with a Biblical reference, which feels a bit strange–it’s very dry in contrast to the liquid language of the rest of the poem. Almost a platitude–except, of course, this is Dickinson, so she is shaping it to her own ends. Exactly what those are, I’m still unsure about. What exactly is the wine she’s offering? And why? She is trying to help the dying–what is the aid she offers? This one is going to need more mulling over, no pun intended, if I’m going to grasp exactly what she’s getting at. What exactly is the thirst she’s talking about? And how would the reclusive Dickinson have thought to address this?

Perhaps the answer is poetry. Whether or not she was shy, as the old myth of the poet proclaims, Dickinson certainly wasn’t out evangelizing to and fro across the Massachusetts countryside. What she was doing was writing. So maybe her poems, her words, are the “unaccustomed wine.” I wonder if she knew they would reach their readers after her death–she must have at least thought of this when she tucked them away in a drawer, tied into neat packets.

Dickinson’s poetry is certainly “unaccustomed”–it definitely would have been to readers at the time. Her attitudes, her style, her unique twist on her subjects–all of these things make her work stand alone, stand out. Maybe this is a poem about her poetry, about a poetic vision of the world that the then-living world wasn’t ready for.

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