A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound—
It beckons, and it baffles—
Philosophy, don't know—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity, must go—
To guess it, puzzles scholars—
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown—
Faith slips—and laughs, and rallies—
Blushes, if any see—
Plucks at a twig of Evidence—
And asks a Vane, the way—
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit—
Strong Hallelujahs roll—
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –
F373 (1862) 501
As she does in numerous other poems, Dickinson begins this one with a claim: “This World is not conclusion.” The rest of the poem fleshes that idea out. There is more to reality than this everyday world we live in, but we can only form conjectures about it. Christianity has inspired martyrs but Faith still “slips.” There really is no conclusion—all our searchings lead to questions rather than answers. Existence doesn't "conclude" at death. Dickinson is using both meanings of "conclusion": the answer to a question and the end of an affair.
If we divide the poem into five quatrains we can better see the flow of ideas. The first establishes the poet’s belief that there are beings beyond earthly life. They are invisible, like music, but as real as the sound that music makes.
Next we see that there is a world beyond this one that “beckons” yet “baffles” us. Philosophy and wisdom can’t help us find it. At the end we must all pass through that “Riddle” that is death to find out what lies beyond.
Yet so great is the mystery that scholars continually puzzle over it and the seekers have “borne / Contempt” of their generation and even crucifixion to gain what seems to be the prize that beckons.
In the face of uncertainty, Faith is the usual antidote prescribed. But Dickinson puckishly likens faith to a young girl embarrassed by a stumble and blushing if anyone saw her. She “Plucks at a twig of Evidence” to help her balance and glances up at a weathervane to see if any directions are forthcoming. Yes, faith is nice, but it would be better if we were offered a bit of evidence and better directions.
Dickinson famously made this same point in her famous poem “Faith is a fine invention”:
Faith is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
A famous American adage, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” says the same thing in a different way and comes from a popular song by Frank Loesser after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the U.S. into World War II. You can’t rest on faith to live your life: grab that microscope or that ammunition and take care of the situation.
Throughout her life Dickinson showed much belief in God but little faith in doctrine. There is an excellent discussion of the role church and religion played in her—and her family’s—life at an Emily Dickinson Museum website. Here is the first paragraph:
Emily Dickinson lived in an age defined by the struggle to reconcile traditional Christian beliefs with newly emerging scientific concepts, the most influential being Darwinism. Dickinson's struggles with faith and doubt reflect her society's diverse perceptions of God, nature, and humankind.
The last four lines of the poem are memorable partly because of the even meter and perfect rhyme (roll / soul) and mostly because of that “Tooth / That nibbles at the soul.” I wonder if a poet exists who didn’t know that tooth—in fact, I wonder if any of us have never felt it. The metaphor is concise: the soul is as a person with a toothache being treated by a dentist. Despite the painkillers and anesthetics the dentist may provide, the toothache endures. The metaphor is expanded however, as it is not the nerves inside the tooth that ache, but the tooth itself that “nibbles.” What gnaws at us spiritually is alive. Gesturing from the pulpit may dull the pain as a narcotic might; “Strong Hallelujahs” from the congregation might help, too. But ultimately that Tooth will nibble at our souls until the day we pass through that Riddle.