Applying Freudian Concepts to the Poem The Heart Seeks Pleasure First by Emily Dickinson

Applying Freudian Concepts to the Poem The Heart Seeks Pleasure First by Emily Dickinson

The purpose of this paper is to apply Freudian concepts to a particular poem, in this case Emily Dickinson's "The Heart Seeks Pleasure - First -." The hope is to attain a greater understanding not only of the obvious meanings but also to study whatever unconscious motives Dickinson may have had as well. Using psychoanalytic theory provides a platform with which to ask questions that seek answers not so much as from the words on the page but more from what is behind the words on the page.

The narrator of "The Heart Seeks Pleasure - First - " is third person but it could be male or female. It is described by Helen Vendler as "a prayer-poem describing a heart praying to an invisible power" (112). The context, quite simply put, is someone asking for pleasure in life. Then when pleasure doesn't come, the person requests that at least there be no pain. Next the person asks for something to at least deaden the pain. Then it is requested that this person be allowed to sleep as perhaps an escape from the pain. Finally, the person asks for, if it be allowed, death as a way to end it all.

The antecedent scenario for this poem would be birth. The poem begins at youth so prior to that there must be birth. There are two main parts to this poem. In the first part, there are the requests made at various stages of life moving linearly from birth through middle age. In the second part, there is old age and death. The climax is in the very last line where the narrator requests "the privilege to die." There is nothing more climatic than death and all the previous pleas build up to this one. Also changing in the second stanza, due to the pain and suffering, the person no longer wishes to be conscious but rather asks for sleep as an opiate for the suffering.

The skeletal shape of this poem is that of a sharp ascent. Actually the emotional curve could be described in two ways. First, that of a sharp ascent because it starts with the happy carefree request of youth for pleasure, then starts to stir the stronger emotions requesting less or no pain. Then even more strongly as the sufferer requests something to deaden their pain. The emotion again intensifies as the pain has increased enough that the person requests sleep as an escape for a little while from pain. Then, when the pain has become so achingly strong that the person can no longer stand it, a request for death. It is the increase in intensity of the pain involved that causes this steep skeletal ascent. However, the argument exists that it is the bright and bubbly request for pleasure that is the high point emotionally and that each further request is more of a descent because it detracts from that happy high point until at last there is nothing left but the depressing plea for death.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary refers to anodynes as "a drug that allays pain" (47). The narrator seems to play a game with the use of this word - anodynes - by setting the scene of the adult who, due to various stresses (work, children, etc.) needs a pill to relax, to relieve the tension. The person is requesting in prayer form for something that, like a pill, will ease the pain of life. Further on, another game is played by showing the narrator pleading "if it should be the will of its Inquisitor the privilege to die." This choice of words implies a very subservient request. A mental picture of someone on their knees passes through the mind. Use of the word "Inquisitor" stems, Vendler says, "to the Renaissance image of a church-licensed torturer"(113). The "Inquisitor" of those days held complete power of life and death over others so the words of the poem now takes on a mental picture of the narrator begging for "the privilege to die." It is this choice of words that the narrator presents a picture of a high power no longer the benevelont God but as Vendler puts it "a torturer" (112).

The narrator (the heart) stresses the speech acts by asking for "Pleasure - first - and then excuse from pain - and then - those little Anodynes that deaden suffering - and - then - to go to sleep - and then - ...." In this manner, the stress acts of the poem are made by stressing the linear timeline of the requests. It is the narrator (the heart) who is the main agent in the beginning and throughout the poem. Although this agent doesn't change, the age changes from youthful and happy to old, tired, and painfully pathetic.

In reference to roads not taken, Dickinson has chosen such simple and direct words that while there are few words, each one carries much weight. By using the heart, she cuts out the brain's logic and the sensory feelings of the nervous system and goes right to the "heart" of the matter, showing the innermost emotion and deepest desire of the narrator. Had the object doing the requesting been other than the heart, the emotion would have been less intense. Our culture has sayings that suggest that something "from the heart" has more honesty and passion than something said, for example, by the cold logic of the brain. Had she wrote that the brain was making these requests, the reader would have been inclined to ask "but how do you really feel?" Had it been the foot doing the requesting, the poem would have been far more humorous and there would be visions of the roads traveled and experience perhaps gained by the traveling of the foot.

Emily Dickinson's poem, "The Heart Asks Pleasure - First - " is a two stanza poem written as a prayer-request poem. However, it's third person narrative form tells of the requests instead of directly addressing the entity to whom the prayer is made. Using the third person narrative adds to the presentation of the poem because the person "saying" the poem is not just anyone. Rather it is the heart, a symbol which cannot lie.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this poem is it's request for death at the end. It is human nature to want to live as long as possible normally so a prayer that ends asking for death is a shock. The reader is reading along watching the heart age from youthful to old and painful and then - boom - suddenly it asks for the ultimate - death. It's like reading or watching the news where there is some awful catastrophe leaving you with the feeling of surprise and shock. This causes the reader to look back over the poem and search for something that could explain such pain or patheticness as to cause a wish for death.

In applying Freud's psychoanalytical theory to this poem, one can imagine that the work was written specifically for this purpose. In the first line "the heart asks Pleasure - first -" Dickinson reminds the reader of Freud's theory of the id as a young child seeking pleasure. According to Ann B. Dobie, "The id... is always trying to satisfy its hunger for pleasure" and "operates without any thought of consequences, anxiety, ethics, logic, precaution, or morality" (51). The id seeks only to satisfy its needs or pleasure as does the Heart in its youth without looking at consequences to itself or others.

As the youthful heart ages so does the id. The ego emerges to leash those wild activities and desires into something more socially acceptable. Two things happen here. First, the heart begins to learn of the pain that it's youthful desires has caused and, two, it's id has had to begin repressing itself into more socially acceptable terms. It has the stirrings of a conscience and how very uncomfortable that is to the id or Heart who wishes no inhibitions whatsoever. In Dickinson's poem, the Heart now asks for an "excuse from pain -." The mediating of the ego between culture and the wild pleasure-seeking of the id has become painful.

The poem's third request "and then - those little Anodynes that deaden suffering - " mark the superego's effect on the id or youthful heart. The narrator no longer has a little conscience but a full-blown conscience with a guilt trip going on for all those youthful exploits. Furthermore, "those little Anodynes" will help suppress the id that has been repressed but perhaps tries to sneak out occasionally and cause trouble. "Those little anodynes" (for example a trip to the psycho analyst's chair) would help to "deaden" the trouble or "suffering" caused by the id and control them so that the narrator could go about his socially acceptable life.

Beginning the second stanza, "and then - to go to sleep - " tells the reader that there is too much id repression, too much pain involved. The narrator wishes to lose herself in sleep or unconsciousness for at least a short while to deal with life. Those "little Anodynes" no longer do the trick. The superego has developed into extreme unconscious guilt which, as Dobie puts it, "can lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the self."

In the end, "and then - if it should be the will of its Inquisitor the privilege to die - ," the superego has become to strict a disciplinarian and the narrator is overwhelmed. The battle between the repressed id and the parental superego is too much to live with and death is the only answer. There is no longer "pleasure" for the id or mediation from the ego. There only remains the intense guilt complex of the superego and a genuine and pathetic wish for a release from it all.

The use of Freudian concepts allows the reader to delve into a thoughtful and more meaningful reading of "The Heart asks Pleasure - First - ." At first glance it seems a nice short poem about the linear emotions of the Heart from youth to old age. However, with Freud the reader can see why there could exist such a difference in the request of the youthful heart and that of old age. In the beginning there is bubbly joy almost seeking pleasure. What could change that so dramatically? Why doesn't the Heart seek the same joy in old age that it did in youth? Freud's concepts explain to the reader how the Heart's though patterns have developed and changed and why life is not as fulfilling for the older heart and, in fact, painful enough for a wish for death to exist.


Dobie, Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Boston, Massachusets: Heinle, 2002

Vendler, Helen. Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martins, 2002

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2001