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Greek translation Greek dictionariesPoetry by Emily Dickinson, S. Doikas (tr), L. Melani (com/ies)
   The Heart Asks Pleasure First | Parting | Compensation

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 liberty to die.

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.

Τη χαρά πρώτα ζητά η καρδιά        (1η μετ. - ελεύθερη)

Τη χαρά πρώτα ζητά η καρδιά
Μετά τη θλίψη ν' αποφεύγει
Κι έπειτα εκείνα τα μικρά παυσίπονα
Που ξεγελούν τον πόνο.

Ύστερα, να πάει να κοιμηθεί
Και τελικά, αν είναι δυνατόν,
Το θέλημα τ' Αφέντη της
Την άδεια να πεθάνει.

Την ηδονή πρώτα ζητά η καρδιά            (2η μετ. - πιστή)
Και μετά την οδύνη ν' αποφεύγει
Και μετά εκείνα τα μικρά παυσίπονα
που εξασθενούν τον πόνο.

Και μετά, να πάει να κοιμηθεί
Και μετά, αν είναι δυνατόν,
Το θέλημα του ιεροεξεταστή της
Την ελευθερία να πεθάνει.

by Lilia Melani

Emily Dickinson's only known photograph
The only known photograph of Emily Dickinson

That the heart "asks" indicates its lower or dependent status; another has the power to grant the request. Listing pleasure as the first request might suggest that it is the most important one. But does the rest of the poem support this assumption? The number of lines devoted to suffering overwhelm the one line devoted to pleasure. Similarly, the degree of suffering implied by the increasingly desperate requests for relief from pain minimizes the importance of pleasure. The last line of stanza one, with its request to "deaden" suffering, anticipates or foreshadows the final request for literal death. (An anodyne is anything that relieves or lessens pain.)

It is God who has the power to grant relief from pain. The implication is that He has the power to inflict it also. This implication is made explicit with her calling God "Inquisitor." Historically, the Inquisition was established by the Roman Catholic Church in the thirteenth century to search out and punish heretics. It came to be associated, particularly in Protestant countries, as a cruel, unjust institution which tortured innocent victims and even burned them at the stake. In using the term "Inquisitor," is Dickinson judging God guilty of inflicting pain upon humanity? Listing the requests for relief ("And then...And then...And then...And then") has a cumulative effect, emphasizing the pain and God's culpability. The use of the word "will" for God makes him totally responsible for humanity's continuing to suffer because He chooses to withhold death.

The final irony is the phrasing of the request to die--"the liberty to die." "Liberty" has powerful connotations for Americans, all favorable. It opens up vistas of freedom; however, in this poem liberty is the freedom to die to escape pain. By using "liberty," is Dickinson suggesting that this is a human right? God has the power to allow liberty or to deny it. That God may deny this liberty and that the heart must request liberty further portray God as an oppressor.

Is this poem in part at least an indictment of God for inflicting misery on humanity?

There is an alternate reading that you might prefer. The alternate reading may be combined with the indictment of God or may replace that reading. The poem can be seen as tracing our progress through life. The child wants pleasure. As we grow older, we experience pain, which increases with age. At first we want not to feel pain; then we realize pain is inevitable and ask for relief from pain. The kind of relief we ask for becomes greater as the pain increases until finally the only escape from pain is death.


My life closed twice before its close;
               It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
               A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
               As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
               And all we need of hell.

Δύο φορές τέλειωσε η ζωή μου, προτού τελειώσει,
Μένει ακόμη να φανεί
Εάν η Αθανασία μου αποκαλύψει
Ένα τρίτο γεγονός
Τόσο μεγάλο, τόσο δύσκολο να το συλλάβει κανείς
Όσο αυτά που ήδη έτυχαν δύο φορές
Ο χωρισμός είναι όλα όσα ξέρουμε για τον παράδεισο,
Και όλα όσα χρειαζόμαστε από την κόλαση.

COMMENTARY for Emily Dickinson's poem PARTING
by Lilia Melani

The speaker uses the metaphor of death to describe the torment two cataclysmic events inflicted. What these two events are we don't know, and I think there is little to be gained in trying to read the poem biographically; for example, is she referring to the deaths of two people? and if so, to whom? was she in love? were her feelings reciprocated?

What matters is that the pain of these events was so sharp that she feels as if her life ended. Despite her feeling, she is, of course, still physically alive, so that she can experience more than one loss and the pain of that loss. Obviously, "its close" at the end of line 1 refers to her literal death.

Dickinson uses metaphors of vision ("see" and "unveil") for revelation. What happens after death, in immortality? She compares what might be revealed to the pain she suffered twice before.

The last two lines of this poem present a powerful paradox; parting is both heaven and hell. We part with those who die and--hopefully--go to heaven, which is, ironically, an eternal happiness for them; however, we who are left behind suffer the pain (hell) of their deaths (parting). Is there any comfort in this poem? What is the one thing we "know" about heaven? Is heaven, for living human beings, connected to hell? A personal note: these lines chill me every time I read them, and they stay with me afterward.


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


Κάθε εκστατική στιγμή
Πρέπει να την πληρώσουμε με οδύνη
Σε αναλογία οξεία και τρεμάμενη
Με την έκσταση.

Για κάθε ώρα λατρευτή
Χρόνια ζωής με πενταροδεκάρες
Με πικρό αγώνα αποκτημένες
Και σεντούκια γεμάτα δάκρυα.

COMMENTARY for Emily Dickinson's poem COMPENSATION
by Lilia Melani

Dickinson makes two main points about the relationship of joy and pain in this poem. (1) Joy and pain are inextricably related; joy is inevitably followed or paid for by suffering. (2) Joy is brief; the resulting pain lasts.

Stanza One
Joy and pain are presented as balanced or equal in several ways:

For each "instant" of joy, we experience an equal "instant" of pain. Because pain is payment for the joy, they have a cause and effect relationship, that is, one causes the other; thus they are inseparable.

The joy and pain are described as deeply felt; the joy is "ecstatic", and pain is an "anguish." Are joy and pain equal in emotional intensity?
The "ratio" between them is intense and, by implication, equal. The qualities "keen and quivering" apply to both joy and pain. The word "quivering" can express a physical reaction to both joy and pain.

On the other hand, there are subtle hints that they may not be equals.

The adjective "keen" (keen: sharp, piercing, or biting) suggests that pain is more strongly or deeply felt. It may also be read as a hint that joy itself may be mixed with some pain. If so, it prepares for the imbalance of joy and pain in stanza two and the dominance of pain.
The first and last lines of the stanza both refer to ecstasy, but pain is mentioned only once. More emphasis is being given to ecstasy not only by the two references but also by the placement of the two references. The opening and conclusion of any literary unit (e.g., a stanza, a poem, an essay, a play, a movie) draw our attention automatically, by virtue of their placement.

Ironically, the hints that pain and joy may not be equals balance each other (there is one hint of dominance for each of them). Stanza two picks up the imagery of stanza one and affirms the dominance of pain.

Stanza Two
To show how long our joy lasts compared to our suffering, Dickinson uses time imagery. In stanza one, ecstasy lasts "an instant" as does pain. How long a time period is this? Stanza two extends the time period we experience joy and pain, but the time periods are no longer equal. For each "hour" of love, we suffer "years." How significant or great is the time difference between an hour and a year? Another way of asking this question is, how much longer does our suffering last than our joy?

She also uses money imagery, beginning with "pay" in stanza one. In stanza two, joyful or "beloved" hours are paid for by "years" of pain. The years are described as "pittances" (pittance: very low salary). How sustaining or fulfilling would a year of pittances be? Joy is finally compared to farthings (farthing: one-fourth of a British penny). If joy is a farthing, the accompanying pain is an overflowing "coffer" (coffer: a box or chest, usually to store treasure).

Another change occurs in stanza two. Joy is no longer experienced separately from pain. Joy is described with words indicating pain. "Farthings" of joy are achieved by "bitter" struggle or contest. In other words, joy occurs with pain. The pain mixed with joy is separate from the pain which is the consequence of joy, the pain discussed in stanza one. We continue to experience this pain as payment for our joy. This pain remains unmixed with joy. The pain which results from joy is intense; it is "sharp. Continuing the money imagery, the pain resulting from the farthings is love (mixed with pain) is fills coffers "with tears." Are these tears of joy or of pain?

Is there an implication that we pay for our ecstasy by our agony, that the ecstasy is merited because of the agony or that the ecstasy is justified by the agony?


Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
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More on-line poems by Emily Dickinson with commentaries by Lilia Melani
The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson by Wendy Martin (Editor) (Paperback - December 2002)
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Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
by Camille Paglia
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Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson
Buy from: Amazon US | Amazon UK

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