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.

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." At this point in the poem, joy and pain seem to be 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 short story, 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 continues to use time imagery. In stanza one, ecstasy lasts "an instant" as does pain.  Stanza two extends the time period we experience joy and pain, but the time periods (the "ratio" of stanza one) 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 the money imagery of stanza one; that imagery began with "pay."  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?  Though the word is not explicitly statead, joy is finally compared to farthings. which are not worth much (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 in the balance of joy and pain occurs in stanza two. Joy and pain are no longer balanced in the number of explicit references to each.  In stanza one, the word joy appears twice, and the word pain appears twice.  In stanza two, however, only the first line explicitly mentions joy; the other three lines use images of pain, whether they refer to joy or pain.  This technique gives us a sense that joy is being overwhelmed by pain.

For 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 which results from joy is intense or "sharp"; so great is the pain that it fills or heaps coffers "with tears.".

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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