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A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Heart asks Pleasure first’

A critical reading of a classic Dickinson poem

‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’ is poem number 536 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. Its title was used by the composer Michael Nyman for his soundtrack to the 1993 film The Piano (even if you’re not familiar with Dickinson’s poem or with the film, you may recognise this piece of music). Below is ‘The Heart asks Pleasure first’ (as we may as well call it) along with a short analysis of this enigmatic little poem.

The Heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from Pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering –

And then – to go to sleep –
And then – if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The liberty to die –

In summary, this poem examines what one’s ‘heart’ most desires: pleasure, ideally, or first and foremost. But, failing that, the heart will settle for being excused from pain, and to live a life without suffering pain. But, failing that, the heart requests ‘Anodynes’ or painkillers (‘Anodyne’ stemming from the Greek for ‘without pain’) to take the pain away. And if those Anodynes don’t work, then sleep or unconsciousness is desirable. And, if sleep fails to soothe one’s ills, death is the one remaining thing the heart asks ‘liberty’ to do. The Inquisitor – some religious figure who may call to mind the ultimate Inquisitor, God (or Death) – is the only one who can help us then. Death is the great painkiller. Unfortunately, of course, it kills everything else too.

Emily DickinsonSo much for a summary, or paraphrase, of Dickinson’s meaning. Yet it may not be as straightforward as that. Should ‘first’ – in that first line – be read as preferential or sequential? In other words, is pleasure what the heart most desires (or, if not active pleasure, then at least to be spared pain, or to be cured of pain, etc.), or what it desires first in life? The sequence seems to be arranged as an order of preferences (I’d rather enjoy life, thank you very much, but if that’s not possible, at least give me a life without actual pain), but it might alternatively be read – given the ambiguity of ‘first’ in ‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’ – as a chronological list. ‘And then’, note (‘And then … And then … And then … And then …’), not well then, or if not.

In other words, then, we begin life unconcerned by life’s hardships and can enjoy yourselves in the golden age of childhood and youth, and that’s what we most desire – for the pleasure to continue. Then we have a period when life has lost its initial shine and novelty, but at least we can say we have our health, if we’re lucky – so that is what we wish for. As we grow older, we know that we cannot avoid pain, so we long for something to take it away. Then we just want to forget the world and our troubles, and lose ourselves in sleep. Finally, we know that we cannot escape our failing health and the only way out is ‘to die’.

‘The Heart asks Pleasure first’. First, yes – but ultimately, as with so many Emily Dickinson poems, we are heading for death, and the final words of the poem, ‘to die’. To sleep? In two short quatrains, Emily Dickinson gives us the life of the average person and their essential heart’s desires. It’s a concise piece worthy of Jaques’ ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, or Hamlet’s soliloquy. But perhaps our analysis has missed off something that you’d like to add – what do you think of ‘The Heart asks Pleasure first’?

Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on October 11, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Jean Buckingham

    Pleasure is a strong word to use and then it’s straight from pleasure to pain and suffering and pass the paracetamol and if they don’t work, lets try euthanasia. it may be very precise but the jump is too long, we should hope to do it more gradually with peace and contentment and let me keep me teeth as long as I can coming in between.

    On Tue, Oct 11, 2016 at 7:01 PM, Interesting Literature wrote:

    > interestingliterature posted: “A critical reading of a classic Dickinson > poem ‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’ is poem number 536 in Emily > Dickinson’s Complete Poems. Its title was used by the composer Michael > Nyman for his soundtrack to the 1993 film The Piano (even if you’re not ” >

  2. Nicely done. It echoes a bit Hamlet’s questioning of being, doesn’t it?

  3. Enigmatic, indeed. Great analysis!

    • Brings to mind Freud’s pernicious theory of the Pleasure – Pain principal. Not that there is no truth in it but there is a third position – to untangle (transcend) the craving and desire which so often brings suffering!

  4. I wonder if this poem is anti-religious? Should the heart seek pleasure first? Is it ethical to do so? Is it involuntary ? Have we the ability to put pleasure aside? Dare I suggest it is an ode to selfishness ?

  5. I enjoy playing that piece of music but didn’t know of the connection with Dickinson.

  6. hey you,
    honestly ,i really really loved every bit of it .keep writing .
    have a great day.
    do visit sanya512.wordpress.com

  1. Pingback: 10 of the Best Emily Dickinson Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature

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