‘For each ecstatic instant’ is a short lyric by Emily Dickinson about the relationship between pleasure and pain, joy and suffering. The Earl of Rochester, in the seventeenth century, had asked, ‘All this to love and rapture’s due; / Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?’ In ‘For each ecstatic instant’, Emily Dickinson answers with a resounding, if regretful, Yes.
For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.
For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years —
Bitter contested farthings —
And Coffers heaped with Tears!
Every moment of joy must have its corresponding moment of misery. Pleasure must be paid for with pain. And ‘paid’ is the word: in the second stanza of this short poem, Emily Dickinson specifically draws on the language of financial exchange to describe this relationship between happiness and misery, joy and anguish.
But how fair and even is this ‘ratio’ between ecstasy and pain? ‘Coffers heaped with Tears’ conjures a vivid image of a large wooden chest, filled not with coins but with tears. It’s a powerful and arresting image, original and easy visualised, and is itself, of course, a form of exchange, since we wish to imagine the coffer filled with glittering coins but instead we are forced to picture it filled with glittering tears. A pleasurable image is itself replaced by one of misery and anguish.
It also seems to outweigh the thing it purportedly balances: a coffer full of tears sounds like a lot of heartache for what is, remember, only an ‘instant’ of ecstasy. Similarly, one hour of pleasure, we are told, must be paid for with years of unhappiness, ‘Sharp pittances’.
If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. You can discover more about her work with our analysis of her poems ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun‘, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, and ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass‘.