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 requests of the heart are arranged in a hierarchy or order of importance; the first request is for pleasure, but the remaining requests ask for relief from pain. The pain increases as the poem goes on; this is the reason that the remedies to relieve the pain become increasingly extreme, with the final request being for death.

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.

Dickinson Syllabus

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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