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18 November 2012

This World is not conclusion

This World is not conclusion.
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.

In fact, if we look back a few poems (F366, He strained my faith”), we see the poet tortured by what she considered to be God testing her faith. He “strained” it, “Wrung” her “with Anguish” as if he didn’t know her. Ah yes, Dickinson was well aware of the nibbling Tooth. Sometimes it was just an annoyance, but sometimes it became a full-blown crisis.


  1. Reminds me of a Zen koan, perhaps the sound of one hand clapping, and how no thought, study, conjecture can solve the riddle, which is born, in another Zen saying by the Great Doubt. The greater the doubt, they say, the greater the enlightenment, the willingness not to make any conclusions, something ED was master of.

    1. Yes, you have to read ED sideways, eyes half closed. I also like in the poem the echo of Karl Marx who referred to religion as "opium of the people" about 20 years before this poem was written. Dickinson here refers to it as a "narcotic".

    2. reading ED "slant"? Thanks, just found your site and am enjoying it.

  2. I like how the punctuation in this poem echoes her conjecture. The first line, beginning with such certainty, is the only one that ends with a period. There is something forced in this, like a forced smile, the way you try harder to pretend everything is ok, especially when it is not.
    Thereafter, all of the mid-line commas emphasize hesitation, doubt--