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The transcendental world of Emily Dickinson, in a single poem

EMILY DICKINSON
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The pain Emily Dickinson describes is pain you might initially be able to ignore. But it’s relentless.

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 –

Emily Dickinson

There’s plenty to be said about Emily Dickinson’s uniquely Catholic worldview, but there was another side of her as well. Here, we find not a ringing declaration of human value, but a rather forced profession of faith that quickly dwindles almost to nothingness. It’s excruciating, but it’s also the best portrayal of human doubt that I’ve ever encountered.

“This World is not Conclusion.” Her initial certainty is punctuated by a confident period, the only one in the poem. Immediately, she goes to defend her declaration of faith, though unasked — our first clue that she’s trying to convince herself, not some outside unbeliever, that there really is an afterlife.

So what kind of an afterlife is it? Well, see, it’s invisible — but it’s “positive as sound.” Sound waves are a thing, even though we can’t see them, right? They still have measurable, substantial effect on our bodies, right?

Now Dickinson finds herself in a bind. She’s claimed that the afterlife is somehow knowable. But who can know it? Not philosophy, not all the sagacity of scholars, since they’re going to have to go through that final “riddle” too, when they die. Puzzled scholars can only guess. There’s not much we can learn from them.

She moves on. Maybe we can find certainty through the zealous example of others, who seemed to have actual certainty? After all,

“To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion”

Perhaps we can borrow from their certainty, and our faith can be bolstered by theirs. Surely, nobody would let himself be crucified if he weren’t sure of the Resurrection. But now she’s brought up the concept of faith, and the whole tone shifts. Can faith alone give certainty to her initial confidence in a life after this one?

“Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence -”

She’s suddenly bashful. Earlier, she was struggling, but with energy, to dig up the source of the certainty she wants to feel. Now, the wind has gone out of her sails. Faith is there, yes, but it can hardly stand on its own two feet. It’s pretending to be much stronger than it is, and doesn’t like its weakness to be found out. It lamely tries to produce evidence, and finds very little. In desperation, Dickinson turns to her last hope–the preacher and his congregation, the Church on Earth.

“Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujah roll -”

It’s intolerably empty. There is confidence, yes, and lots of noise, but no evidence, no certainty, not even any faith, necessarily. Just commotion. In disgust, she drops the idea, and shifts track completely:

“Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul -”

She’s not talking about faith anymore, or the afterlife, or proof, or even expressing disappointment at everything that’s failed her in her search. No, now the only thing on her mind is “narcotics.” Something, anything to numb the excruciating pain that she is in. She hasn’t let us in on the secret, how she is tortured by this thought, until the very end when it’s all she has left. The type of pain she describes is important. It’s not a gaping wound. She’s not bleeding to death. The pain is much quieter than that. (An original draft of this poem referred to a mouse, not a tooth.) It’s almost the kind of pain you might initially be able to ignore. But it’s relentless. It’s incessant. You don’t ask for narcotics at the first pinch, but you’d be screaming for it after years of being nibbled away at.

Dickinson doesn’t end with conclusion at all. She doesn’t say, “I’ve had it; this world is all we get.” That’s telling. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see a ray of hope shining through these last lines, but the ending does still tell us something. She hasn’t ended with a period, but a dash. She’s left room. Room for what, we don’t know, but neither does she. We’ll all have to wait and find out.

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