Free From Pain? On Dickinson’s "The Heart Asks Pleasure First…"

The heart asks pleasure first…
Emily Dickinson

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.


Finally, a woman whose maturity I can respect. I think I’m falling in love with her.

There isn’t much to explain in this poem, but a lot to wonder about. It clearly is talking about the progression of love – we fall in love (“pleasure first”), we cease to be loved by the beloved (“excuse from pain”), then we never want to be hurt as badly (use of “anodynes”), and then, of course, we just never want to be hurt (“sleep”).

Which brings us now to the tricky lines: Who is this Inquisitor, and why would the heart dying be “liberty?”

First of all, what is the difference between a heart that is dead and a heart that is asleep? I guess it might be that a heart that is asleep can be awoken, that it, while passive, can resume activity under the right conditions. To be able to change state seems more a liberty than “death,” no?

Secondly, what of this Inquisitor? Who demands of the heart? At first we may think it’s the beloved, but we know better as long as we’re not in denial: We’re the ones who want love, who demand to love and be loved. We’re the ones who hold our heart to a heavenly ideal, who demand that perfection come about through love in some way.

When one sees that oneself has been the torturer of one’s own heart, it makes perfect sense why one’s heart dying should be a “liberty.” This list about the progression of love is a list we have to be cynical about: our true happiness cannot be grounded in any of the experiences mentioned.

And maybe what is being described isn’t true love on our part.

Other poems which Miss Dickinson (can I call you Emily? yes, ma’am.) offers concern the love of good books, a love which never fails to satisfy. That’s her solution to this cycle of ache, and maybe it is a few others’ too.

I actually don’t read that much. I spent a lot of time on campus talking, eating, writing. That’s it. I don’t know how much I trust myself to love what is old; I suspect I would be a rather unfaithful lover, myself.


  1. “excuse from pain”

    From my point of view, the love is still there, increasing, only there is knowledge coming that it may be painful, too strongly felt, asking sacrifice. Love wanting increasing reciprocity, wanting an excuse from the truth, but the excuse is nowhere to be found, except in lies.

  2. This is so heartfelt and brilliant it gives me great pause. I think you see Dickinson’s intent with crystal clear perception. I don’t think she was a complete cynic, either. She simply called it as she saw it. You just coaxed it out of the poem more effectively.

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