A short Emily Dickinson poem about life … and the afterlife – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘This World is not Conclusion’ is poem number 501 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. According to the best editorial guess, the poem was written in around 1862. ‘This World is not Conclusion’ sees Emily Dickinson exploring and analysing our attitudes to death and what awaits us beyond.
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 –
First, a brief paraphrase of the poem, by way of summary:
The world that we know and live in is not the only one, and everything does not end with death. Something is found beyond this life, but although it has physical existence (like sound) it is mysterious and invisible (like the power of music). It intrigues us, but it resists full understand – even philosophy cannot pin it down or explain it. Our conventional wisdom or ‘sagacity’ is no good when faced with such a ‘Riddle’. Those who’ve tried to guess the nature of this world beyond have puzzled scholars (presumably those who have sought to interpret the words of holy texts), and men have been prepared to be unpopular for generations in defence of their beliefs about the nature of this afterlife. Some have even been crucified for it – chiefly, of course, Jesus Christ (though some of Christ’s followers also suffered such a fate). Faith sometimes seems embarrassing as a way of defending such a belief in the afterlife, too – it ‘slips’ and ‘blushes’, hanging on to a tenuous shred of evidence and foolishly following will-o’-the-wisps in the hope that they will point ‘the way’. Priests gesticulating animatedly from the pulpit and worshippers enthusiastically singing hymns (‘Hallelujahs’) show that people fervently believe, or want to believe, in this ‘world’ beyond, and such a spirit cannot be suppressed when it ‘nibbles at the Soul’.
As so often with an Emily Dickinson poem, ‘This World is not Conclusion’ is striking and memorable because of its vivid imagery. The notion of asking a weathervane the way is clearly foolhardy, not just because it changes its direction depending on which way the wind blows (implying fickleness and unreliability) but because its position is based on nothing more than the wind, rather than some conscious, divine agency. (The word ‘Vane’ also punningly suggests that such truth-seeking is all in vain.)
Similarly, the final image of the poem, suggesting the dull pain of toothache, neatly encapsulates the nagging feeling of doubt: narcotics may dull the pain, but that just means you can’t feel it, not that the problem has gone away. ‘Tooth’ also gestures towards the word which hovers behind the lines of the poem, but is, like music, ‘invisible’, always just out of sight: ‘Truth’.
‘This World is not Conclusion’ is a fine poem written by a poet who had her own religious doubts. If you’d like to explore more of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, check out our selection here. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.