In ‘This World is not Conclusion,’ Dickinson employs vivid imagery to express her views on life, faith, and the prospect of an afterlife. By highlighting the intangibility of, for example, music, Dickinson challenges the readers’ assumptions on what constitutes the real and the worthwhile.
This World is not Conclusion Emily DickinsonThis World is not Conclusion.A Species stands beyond - Invisible, as Music -But positive, as Sound -It beckons, and it baffles - Philosophy, dont know - And through a Riddle, at the last - Sagacity, must go -To guess it, puzzles scholars -To gain it, Men have borneContempt of GenerationsAnd 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 ToothThat nibbles at the soul -
In ‘This World is not Conclusion‘ Dickinson weaves themes of faith and doubt together through the use of both beautiful and gritty imagery.
The poem begins with the titular assertion that our experience of the earthly world is insufficient to conclude that it is the only realm of existence. Dickinson’s poem undulates between the physical and the abstract to showcase the innumerable ways in which the mysterious surrounds us and interacts with our everyday existence. She later alludes to Christianity and thereby emphasizes how faith can sustain a person through periods of doubt. The poem ends with the image of a toothache that medication cannot soothe to represent the bearable yet inescapable doubt that is part of what makes us human.
Whilst a prolific writer throughout her life, the vast majority of Dickinson’s nearly 1800 poems were unpublished during her lifetime. ‘This World is not Conclusion‘ was most likely written around 1862, when Dickinson was in her early thirties. Like much of her work, the poem is principally concerned with the relationship between the physical world and its relationship to the abstract.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and lived there all her life. Her family was not especially wealthy but were well connected in society as her father was a respected lawyer. Dickinson was very reclusive throughout her life, preferring to engage with friends via letters. It was noted that she had a talent for the piano in her youth and was, in line with her father’s wishes, well educated. A family acquaintance introduced Dickinson to the poetry of William Wordsworth when she was eighteen, and it is thought she began writing around this time.
This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
The absolute nature of the first line establishes the poem’s central theme by asserting that the world around the narrator cannot be conclusively said to be the only one. The line also ends with a full stop, in contrast to the subsequent lines, which end with hyphens. This could be intended to convey the poet’s initial sense of certainty, which is perhaps ironic as much of the poem is concerned with doubt.
Dickinson uses sibilance in line two when describing the species that supposedly exists beyond the physical world. This creates an unsettling tone which could reflect the poet’s uncertainty regarding the specifics of her claim. She then uses juxtaposing similes when comparing the species to both music and sound to create opposite effects. By acknowledging the presence of sound while emphasizing the intangible beauty of music, Dickinson shows that the world is not as rational and immediately present as we might pretend.
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, don’t know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
The poet continues to use juxtaposition in line five to reflect the struggle for meaning, given that which she wishes to understand both invites inquiry and resists interpretation. Similarly, the alliteration offers a semblance of familiarity but little by way of additional information. Dickinson thereby highlights the manner in which the world around us is simultaneously familiar and yet retains a degree of mystery.
The use of rhyme at the end of lines six and eight places emphasis on the words “know” and “go” in order to reinforce Dickinson’s view that conventional forms of intellect are useless. By undermining reason, these lines foreshadow the poem’s later appreciation for faith.
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Dickinson clearly indicates that faith, specifically Christian belief, can succeed where reason failed and help elucidate the mysterious realm that she believes exists beyond the one we physically occupy. The use of the hyperbolic claim that humanity has “borne contempt of generations” harks back to the persecution of early Christians under Roman rule. The connection with the divine is made explicit by the reference to crucifixion, which links to the death of Christ but also to many of his followers that were executed for their faith. Clearly, Dickinson implies that these people have a greater understanding of the spiritual world, which presumably aligns that world with the Christian conception of the afterlife, Heaven.
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
These lines focus on the difficulties of relying on faith, especially in the increasingly sceptical world in which Dickinson lived. The selection of the verb “blushes” insinuates that the narrator is aware of how embarrassing it is to believe in things that cannot be rationally or scientifically verified. Likewise, the verb “slipped” suggests that her confidence in her earlier claims is fading. However, the other two verbs could indicate the narrator is unwilling to give up their views and laughs at those who do not share the narrator’s confidence.
The use of the metaphorical “twig of evidence” is curious as, on the one hand, it implies that Dickinson is acknowledging the minimal proof she has to validate her beliefs, just as a twig is dwarfed by the presence of a tree. Conversely, it could suggest that one can easily be led astray if one relies on evidence, as there is such an abundance of information that it is possible to miss the bigger picture.
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –
The poem ends with the evocation of a church service, in which the narrator is surrounded by affirming pronouncements. While the word “Hallelujahs” does not necessarily imply the presence of music, the word is often sung in church and features in many hymns. Therefore, the narrator could be hearing the same music that they found to be evidence of another world earlier in the poem.
However, the final two lines remind the reader that doubt is always present, regardless of the strength of one’s convictions. The hallelujahs are metaphorically compared to narcotics, which dull the pain of the tooth, which Dickinson claims is nibbling at the soul. This invasion of the abstract “soul” by the physical world, as represented by the “tooth” implies that faith can be eroded by the increasingly rational attitudes of humanity in the nineteenth century.
While studying at Amherst Academy in 1845, many of Dickinson’s classmates were swept up in the religious revival that occurred across America. While Dickinson never explicitly stated that she had taken up Christianity, she did attend church services for the next seven years.
A sagacious individual is characterized as having good or sound judgment; they might also be described as wise. In the context of this poem, sagacity is rejected by the narrator, who prefers faith to reason.
The poem has no consistent rhyme scheme, yet notable rhymes are contained within it. These serve to draw the reader’s attention to specific words. However, they also imbue the text with echoic familiarity, as if hinting at the divine purpose that the narrator believes in. Likewise, the separation of the first twelve lines from the final eight mirrors the second, mysterious world that the narrator believes to exist beyond the one we live in.
Music is an important symbol in the poem as it is simultaneously earthly and yet retains a sense of the mystical, as demonstrated by its regular use in religious services. It, therefore, spans the divide between the physical and spiritual world, providing a clue that the latter exists.
Readers who enjoyed ‘This World is not Conclusion‘ might want to explore other Emily Dickinson poems. For example:
- ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers‘ – Perhaps Dickinson’s best-loved poem; it is a beautiful depiction of hope in the natural world.
- ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain‘ – A poetic reflection on death, which was one of Dickinson’s most famous preoccupations.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Animal Tranquility and Decay‘ by William Wordsworth – An early inspiration of Dickinson, Wordsworth’s poem also contemplates the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.
- ‘Dover Beach‘ by Matthew Arnold – Written during the same decade as Dickinson’s poem, Arnold also explores the relationship between faith and reason.