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  • Lyric Tipplers:Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Wine of Cyprus,” Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor,” and the Transatlantic Anacreontic Tradition
  • Marjorie Stone (bio)

In August 1846, shortly before their marriage, Robert Browning told Elizabeth Barrett that one work in her 1844 Poems had “always affected” him “profoundly”—“perhaps . . . more profoundly” than any other by her, filling his “heart with unutterable desires.”1 The poem that aroused such “unutterable desires”—“Wine of Cyprus”—is little read today. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, it was a universally praised minor poem in the collection that made “Elizabeth Barrett Barrett” England’s most internationally recognized woman poet. Like EBB’s other 1844 works, “Wine of Cyprus” was included in the successively expanded collections of Poems (1850, 1853, 1856) published under her married name, reproduced in pirated editions in America. These widely reviewed collections made “Mrs. Browning’s poems . . . house hold words in Massachusetts to every school boy & (yet more) every school girl,” Thomas Went worth Higginson observed to her poet-husband in a letter of January 1854 (BC 20: 53). Although Emily Dickinson did not approach Higginson until 1862 to ask if her verse was “alive,” his comment to Browning reflects the contexts in which “Mrs. Browning” became an empowering star on Dickinson’s artistic horizon well before the publication of Aurora Leigh in November 1856. “For Poets,” she had “Keats—and Mr and Mrs Browning,” as she informed Higginson, and Paula Bennett is far from alone in identifying EBB as Dickinson’s “[m]ost beloved” and “chosen precursor” among women writers.2 Studies of this transatlantic poetic relationship typically focus on Dickinson’s deep engagement with Aurora Leigh and/or and the American poet’s three elegies for “that Foreign Lady”: especially “I think I was enchanted,” representing the “Conversion of the Mind” that Dickinson experienced in encountering what she [End Page 123] termed the “Titanic opera” of EBB’s poetry.3 Like teeming grapevines, however, the tendrils of affiliation intertwining Dickinson’s poetry with EBB’s grow in multiple directions. This essay explores unexamined connections between EBB’s “Wine of Cyprus” and Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed” (Fr207) in conjunction with the historical and cultural contexts that gave rise to these works. As I hope to show, these minor poems speak to the rich diversity of the lyric forms available to the two poets and the similar strategies they developed to transform one particularly masculine literary tradition.

Despite very notable differences in form, Dickinson’s most famous “drinking poem” and EBB’s “wine” poem exhibit some striking parallels in subject matter, metaphors, and motifs. In Dickinson’s euphoric lyric as it appears in fascicle 12, the speaker rhapsodizes about an “Alcohol” “never brewed” from “Frankfort berries” (“Vats opon upon the Rhine” in the variant), describes herself as “Inebriate of air,” and finally pictures herself as a “ little Tippler / From Manzanilla come!”—or, in the often preferred variant ending, “Leaning against the—Sun—” (Fr207, ll. 1–5, 15–16). “Wine of Cyprus” celebrates a similar state of ecstatic inebriation, in EBB’s case resulting from a gift of Cyprian honey wine from the classical scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd. “Thank you my very dear friend!! I write to you drunk with Cyprus!” she wrote to Boyd in June 1844. Extolling the “ideal nectar” as suited to “gods or demigods” and potent enough to inspire her dog Flush to talk in “Greek or English” (though denounced as “exceedingly beastly” by her father), she fancifully conveyed her “own particular intoxication” (BC 9: 22, 77). In the same letter, she informed Boyd of progress on her 1844 collection: “I have passed the middle of my second volume—and I only hope that the critics may say of the rest that it smells of Greek wine” (p. 22). Thus, she hinted at her return gift, dedicated to the blind scholar who had studied Greek with her when she was shut out from the male preserve of a university classical education. In “Wine of Cyprus,” she transforms Boyd’s gift of honey wine into an expansive metaphor for the pleasure she had experienced in drinking deeply from the Greek poetical tradition.

While EBB clearly...


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