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16 February 2015

The Heart asks Pleasure – first –

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 privilege to die –
                         F588 (1863)  J536

In a relentless series of "And then –", Dickinson charts the Heart's progression from desiring Pleasure to asking for the "privilege" of death. That's quite a deterioration in two stanzas. Other poets might offer an example or two, a descriptive phrase here and there, or at least a few adjectives and adverbs. But Dickinson strips the poem to the bones. 
        She writes it straight: Pleasure, Pain, Anodynes, sleep, death. Of those, she expands only on Anodynes: they are "little" in the way an aperitif or sleeping pill might be little. Yet such small things can "deaden suffering". This phrase not only foreshadows the final line, but makes the progression from the pain in the previous line quite clear. We first ask to be spared pain. When we aren't spared, we try to numb it.
        Sleep is a deeper anodyne. Yet sleep doesn't come easily to an unquiet mind and that which is granted by a pill is a dead sleep.  It is an easy step from there to desiring death. Dickinson may have been hearing Hamlet as she composed this poem: "To die, to sleep – /… and by sleep, to say we end / The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks / That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished." [Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1). Hamlet continues, though, to say it is "the dread of something after death" that deters suicide. 
Tomas de Torquemado, Grand
Inquisitor of Spain, 1482-1498
        Because of this and, more specifically, the Calvinistic opinion that suicide is a grave sin, Dickinson adds a caveat to the desire for death: "if it should be / The will of its Inquisitor". She refers to God, and while his aspect as the Heart's Inquisitor might mean simply that he would be questioning her, the term is too loaded with negative connotations for Dickinson to have not intended them. Grand Inquisitors might well decide that a subject should be tortured or burned at the stake. 
        But the poem twists that ending. Here the heart, thwarted at every step, finally wishes to die; seeks the "privilege" of dying. It is the Inquisitor who has power and choice, not the speaker. He might withhold his permission – and that would be a form of torture.

A second reading of the poem might find Dickinson echoing a different Shakespearian passage altogether, that of Jaques' monologue in As You Like It where he lists the seven stages of man, from infant to decrepitude. In Dickinson's abbreviated version we begin as children wanting pleasure. We learn to avoid pain and then how to deaden it. We take to our beds and then ultimately welcome death.
This reading, though, seems too gentle for the stark terms of this poem with its thwarted heart and its dread Inquisitor who doesn't deal in happiness or relief, but only grants or withholds the final peace.


  1. ED uses the words "and then" in other poems as well -- to add a sense of immediacy and suspense, moment by moment unfolding of events. One of ED's greatest poems (one that coming up for discussion soon) -- "I heard a Fly Buzz" -- uses this device. Also "I felt a funeral in my Brain".

    I particularly like this present poem. Not that ED would have intended this, but it has a Buddhist flavor to it in its depiction of life as suffering. And the triad of pleasure, pain and anodyne corresponds with the Buddhist notion of the "three poisons" (desire -- or pulling in what is pleasurable, aggression -- or rejecting what is painful or threatening, and ignorance -- or dulling and avoiding the vividness of experience). This, of course, is either entirely coincidental or independently understood based on a common experience.

    EDs background, as you point out, was Calvinist. So, there is the concept of predestination -- and, in that sense, God is the Inquisitor -- giving pleasure or "excusing" pain. But suffering is the baseline state.

    1. Ooh, that correlation between the "three poisons" and this poem is rich. And yet, "The privilege to die" doesn't seem so Buddhist to me. There's still desire mixed into that.

  2. I just want to drop in and say thank you for this blog. I love it!

  3. Dear Susan
    Thank you so much for your superb blog. I only discovered Emily this year by seeing A Quiet Passion. Your analyses of poems are an enormous help to me, a novice.

  4. I don’t understand why ED says

    “if it should be
    The will of its Inquisitor”

    She’s direct when she wants to be; why not simply

    “And then – to go to sleep –
    And then –
    The privilege to die –”

    Sarcasm? Fake humility, “with your permission, God”?

    You’re right, Susan, the last stanza reverberates "To die, to sleep –”