Emily Dickinson, “Impossibility, like Wine” (838)

“Impossibility, like Wine” (838)
Emily Dickinson

Impossibility, like Wine
Exhilarates the Man
Who tastes it; Possibility
Is flavorless – Combine

A Chance’s faintest Tincture
And in the former Dram
Enchantment makes ingredient
As certainly as Doom –

Comment:

1. Impossibility, like wine, exhilarates one who tastes it. How, exactly, does one taste impossibility? The statement almost makes no sense on its own. There is a way we can say impossibility can be tasted. Ambitious people get some crazy idea in their head, whether it involves conquering the world, dating someone out of their league, making piles of money, becoming a professor. That crazy idea is a mere taste, only a feeling. The impossible is only felt, no reality behind the sensation.

So there is a way “impossibility exhilarating one” makes some sense. The speaker of the poem, though, insists on “Impossibility, like Wine / Exhilarates the Man / Who tastes it” remaining a difficulty we have to think through. How do I conclude this? Consider the rest of the stanza:

Impossibility, like Wine
Exhilarates the Man
Who tastes it; Possibility
Is flavorless – Combine

The simile is incomplete if we just leave it at “impossibility is like wine.” Dickinson’s speaker goes a radical direction: “Possibility is flavorless?” Huh? The ready association of possibilities and taste is denied. It would be so easy to say something like the following: “Just as we sample flavors at an ice cream store, we sample different possibilities before deciding.” But Dickinson refuses the easy way out.

I suspect she really wants us to think about how problematic our everyday notions of Impossibility and Possibility are. I’ve described them above. She’s daring us to think why my examples of ambitious people simply feeling like they could accomplish the impossible, of possibility as sampling, are completely wrong. At least for this stanza, she plays with the idea that Possibility is a nothingness. It isn’t even sampled or truly chosen. Since we work to fulfill possibilities, it matters so much less that we made a decision as opposed to the decision making us. Possibility, on that reckoning, is truly flavorless. Only Impossibility contains something like taste for us to experience. Only Impossibility makes Possibility the more typical phenomenon we recognize and appreciate.

2. Dickinson is not done. My musing on the first stanza has failed to identify the drama underlying it. Her second stanza, introduced by a command from the first:

…Combine

A Chance’s faintest Tincture
And in the former Dram
Enchantment makes ingredient
As certainly as Doom –

Her grammar indicates a command (“Combine”), but we know the tone is that of a warning. “If you combine a chance’s faintest tincture” – combine with what? She talks about a “former Dram,” and we have to go back and work with the first stanza. We take a chance’s slight tint – we take the fact we see what could be an opportunity, something lovely in everyday life – and add it to Wine-like Impossibility. Chance, flavorless Possibility, is not entirely devoid of color; we’re making quite a powerful drink, one that appeals to the eye and the throat.

“Enchantment makes ingredient as certainly as Doom,” indeed. We seal our fate. Possibilities do nothing but tint impossible dreams. Dickinson is cynical, but wondering if sobriety could be an option. Can we work with distinct but flavorless possibilities? I don’t know. With “faintest tincture,” she makes clear that what really colors the world is desire. To be truly moderate is a superhuman feat.

3 Comments

  1. I know that to wrap my mind around all of these possibilities I need to be drinking wine :) We have a couple of sayings in the industry that you may or may not know: “In vino veritas”, and “With wine there is wisdom while with water there is bacteria!” :)

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