“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.“
i was going to post this from memory Just in keeping with my mood, a sort of “low grade depression” over the way things are going lately. (Michelle Zero is not alone.) BuT I’m glad I didn’t: the poet’s version is so much better than what memory had elided it to.
Of course with Emily’s poems there are often several slightly different versions around, ALL of which she wrote herself. I’ve noticed that with Kipling, too. Maybe because other people pawed through a trove of drafts they left lying around at their deaths. But I think the ways in which my memory doesn’t live up to her words are instructive as to what makes real poetry so superior to mere platitudes.
First, I thought it was the soul, not the heart, doing the asking. Stupid: if you believe in a soul, it does NOT die, like the heart inevitably does. The heart, whatever else it be, is corporeal.
I thought it was “relief” from pain, but that isn’t the same thing as “excuse” . With the latter, the young heart is not yet feeling the pain, and it looks to get out of ever having to feel it, for an excuse as to why what it sees happening to everybody else somehow won’t happen to it.
I thought it was “the” little anodynes, but it’s “those “. What is the difference? There is one, but it’s hard to express. In this sentence, “the” would mean “whatever“, or “any and all”; whereas “those”means specific things, already familiar. “Those” says: “Reader,, you know exactly what I mean.”
And finally—and this was the biggie!— I remembered “Creator” for her “Inquisitor”. Now, that is really a travesty on both levels. On the level of poetic rhythm, meter etc., it cuts a syllable and destroys the one-two beat of the line “The will of the Inquisitor”. But worse: it makes the meaning of the line, of the poem, so much more, well, yes: anodyne.
Okay, maybe “Inquisitor”in the poem means God the creator, but maybe NOT. There are other entities that can and do mercilessly interrogate “the heart”. For one: the brain (meaning mind or intellect). Or possibly, “Death”, which Dickinson personifies in other poems. (“Because I would not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me..”) The consciousness of mortality hardly presses on the young heart; later, the heart seeks a way to be excused from the knowledge; then, it tries to distract itself from the first twinges with “those little anodynes”; then, it seeks unconsciousness (Sleep) To avoid the unbearable truth, and at last, as a heretic might, broken by the relentless tortures and unceasing harangues of his Inqiusitor, it begs to be allowed simply to die. It knows at last that it cannot escape alive. It has all hope abandoned, except a pathetic, submissive longing that the torturer show mercy. A cringing, tentative hope:”if it should be/the will..”. Thy will be done.
I reckon, when you’ve had a poem stored in memory for long time, it kinda flattens out, the spikes and sharp edges get just smoothed down to reassemble more what we might say in quotidian discourse. It is SO worth looking up the poet’s actual words. It is recognition AND revelation, journey AND homecoming.
Many Rattys won’t have read this far, I know: but to those who have: if you have fond memories of any poem you ever encountered, look it up! Now, on your IPad or on wherever device you’re reading this. I venture to promise you won’t be sorry, and you will be surprised!