The Heart asks Pleasure – first

Emily Dickinson

‘The heart asks pleasure first’ by Emily Dickinson depicts the needs of the heart. They are highly changeable and include pleasure and excuse from pain.

Emily Dickinson

Nationality: America

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

Central Message: The heart wants pleasure and then, if not that, freedom from pain

Themes: Love

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Confidence, Hope

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

The universality of pleasure and pain comes through clearly in this Dickinson poem.

‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’ is a short two-stanza piece that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow an imperfect rhyme scheme that doesn’t conform to a specific pattern. 

The lines are all quite short, therefore making it easy to conclude that they all follow the same metrical pattern. But, this isn’t entirely true. The first, second, and fourth lines of each stanza contain three sets of two beats, known as trimeter. While the third lines of both stanzas are longer. They contain four sets of two beats, known as tetrameter. 

The Heart asks Pleasure—first
Emily Dickinson

The Heart asks Pleasure—first—And then—Excuse from Pain—And then—those little AnodynesThat deaden suffering—And then—to go to sleep—And then—if it should beThe will of its InquisitorThe privilege to die—
The Heart asks Pleasure - first by Emily Dickinson


‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’ by Emily Dickinson describes the different needs of the heart, descending from most to least desirable. 

The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that the first thing a heart wants is pleasure. It is the highest-ranked or most desirable state of being. But, there are other options too if pleasure is not available. Second, the heart would like to have “excuse from pain”. If there can’t be pleasure in one’s life, then at least it can be pain-free. This isn’t always the case though. One’s life might not be painless, but if they can have “little anodynes” or moments of relief from the pain, then that’s enough. They would “deaden suffering” a little.

There are two more levels of happiness/unhappiness in the next stanza. Dickinson’s speaker says that if one’s life is filled with pain, and devoid of anodynes, then they should go to sleep. Last, if this isn’t possible, the sufferer should ask the “Inquisitor” to allow them to die.

Poetic Techniques

Dickinson’s Dashes and Capitalization

Scholars are divided over what this intermittent punctuation could mean. But in this case, the dashes are easily read as moments in which the speaker was overwhelmed or thinking hard before proceeding. The pauses represent a desire to create drama and tension in the text. It is also a way for the reader, speaker, and even Dickinson herself, to gather thoughts together before moving on to the next line. 

One should also consider the use of capitalization in these lines. This is another technique that Dickinson is known for, and which causes confusion among students and scholars alike. There is no single definitive reason why Dickinson capitalized on the words she did. Often, the words she chose were the most prominent of the lines, the ones that were the most evocative and meaningful. This appears to be the case in ‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’ as well. 

Other Poetic Techniques 

Another technique that Dickinson makes use of is anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, the phrase “And then” begins four of the eight lines and another three begin with “The”. 

Additionally, due in part to the dashes, enjambment plays an important role in the poem. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.  It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. 

Analysis of The Heart asks Pleasure – first

Stanza One

The heart asks pleasure – first

And then, excuse from pain-

And then, those little anodynes

That deaden suffering;

In the first stanza, the speaker begins by utilizing the line that would later become an informal title. This was often the case with Dickinson’s poetry as she left her works untitled. They go by the first line, or by their corresponding number in her collection, Complete Poems. This poem was given the number 536. 

The first line tells the reader that the poem is going to be about what the heart wants, and the most important thing it wants is “pleasure”. Before all else, universally, pleasure is the most important. Because the speaker doesn’t explain what kind of pleasure she means, a reader should take it to mean anything they want. It could be pleasure in the company of another, physical or sexual pleasure, or simple pleasures like finishing a day’s work. 

The second line contains what the heart likes second best, if one can’t have pleasure, then they want to be far away from pain. It might not be the best outcome, but being without pain is certainly better than having it plague one throughout life. 

Dickinson’s progression continues. If pain has to be present in someone’s life, then that person is going to want “those little anodynes” or pain killers. Through this phrase, she is likely not referring to actual pain killers as a contemporary reader would know them, but to a reprieve from the pain itself. As long as it doesn’t occur all the time then that is somewhat of an improvement. 

Stanza Two 

And then, to go to sleep;

And then, if it should be

The will of its Inquisitor,

The liberty to die.

In the second stanza, Dickinson uses the phrase “And then” two more times. Her list grows, and she continues to descend through the wants of the human body. If someone cannot receive “anodynes” then they are going to want to “go to sleep”. This is then the only way to break the cycle of pain. 

Last, she adds that if sleep can’t occur, then the only resort left for this suffering person is to die. Hopefully, it will be the “will” of the “Inquisitor” that this occurs. It is up to this ephemeral being, perhaps God or the embodiment of Death, if someone has “The liberty to die”. By using the word “liberty” Dickinson is relating it to freedom. It is a way to escape the chains of suffering the world has imposed. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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