Dickinson makes two main points about the relationship of joy
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.
Joy and pain are presented as balanced or equal in several
On the other hand, there are subtle hints that they may not be equals.
- 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
- 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
- The "ratio" between them is intense and, by implication,
qualities "keen and quivering" apply to both joy and pain. The word
"quivering" can express a physical reaction to both joy and pain.
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
- 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.
To show how long our joy lasts compared to our suffering,
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
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.
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
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
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
|Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed,"
"Safe in their alabaster chambers,"
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p.
"It was not death, for I stood up,"
| "A bird came down the walk,"
"I like to see it lap the miles,"
"Pain has an element of blank," p.
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p.
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
| "After great pain a formal
feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society"
"The heart asks pleasure first,"
"I'll tell you how the sun rose,"
"Presentiment is that long shadow on
the lawn," p. 36
| "Success is counted sweetest"
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p.
"I felt a cleaving in my mind,"
"My life closed twice before its
close," p. 49
| "Wild nights! Wild nights!"
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms,"
"Hope is the thing with feathers,"
"I felt a funeral in my brain,"
"I had been hungry all the years,"
|"I started Early--took my Dog--"
"My life had stood a loaded gun"
"Because I could not stop for Death,"
"If you were coming in the fall,"
Sample Midtern and Student
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