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, dont 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
Image via Pexels.

The mystery of what comes after–this seems like a very Emily sort of poem, of wondering. The bulk of the poem seems to be contemplating the riddle of what follows this life–but the final lines throw it a bit up in the air. What is “the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul”? Through the rest of the poem, Dickinson seems to be expressing faith, if imperfect. But the last lines throw it all into question. Does she mean that the life after this one plucks at the soul, calling it? Or does she mean, by nibbling, that something is consuming the soul?

Ultimately, the poem, like its subject, is a sort of riddle. Dickinson is describing a mystery, and the point, perhaps, is not for us to know what that mystery is, but through her language to feel the wondering, the doubt, the confusion, the mystery itself.


Going to heaven!
I don’t know when,
Pray do not ask me how,—
Indeed, I ’m too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to heaven!—
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the shepherd’s arm!

Perhaps you ’re going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first,
Save just a little place for me
Close to the two I lost!
The smallest “robe” will fit me,
And just a bit of “crown”;
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home.

I ’m glad I don’t believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I ’d like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Min An, Pexels.

There are so many interesting things happening in this poem. First off, it’s unlike many, many other Dickinson poems about death in that it’s neither dark and foreboding nor eagerly anticipating death.

Secondly, the speaker is addressing someone. She exclaims at the beginning, and then asks not to be asked more questions, as if she’s responding to someone who’s just posed one. Who is the speaker talking to? To an actual person? To herself? It seems impossible to say. There are lots of exclamation marks in that first stanza, too, to underscore her astonishment at being asked this question–and admittedly, if there is an actual person posing it, it’s a weird one. The speaker says it sounds “dim,” uncertain, suggesting that the idea of heaven is a long way off, but then acknowledges that “it must be done.” It’s a funny sort of resignation. Oh, heaven? Yeah, I guess we have to do that. Okay.

The second stanza begins humorously. “Perhaps you’re going too!” Is this an Emily burn? Hey, maybe you’ll eventually make it to heaven! “Who knows?” But then the tone abruptly shifts to seriousness, with the speaker asking the person she’s addressing to save a place for her near two loved ones who have preceded her in death. But then again, she shifts tone, and starts pondering her dress–what to wear to heaven? Just a bit of robe, just a small crown. It’s as if she’s trying to distract herself from the thought of her losses.

But she can’t stave off such thoughts for long. In the third stanza, she insists that she doesn’t believe, because she wants to stay here to “look a little more/At such a curious Earth!” It’s as if she’s an observer from another world looking in from the outside. As if, perhaps, despite her insistence to the contrary, she (and all of us) belong to heaven and are only sojourning here. And then she shifts again, back to her lost loved ones. She’s glad that they believed, even if she doesn’t. The speaker ends with a stark image of loss, of an autumn afternoon when she buried them.

There is a lot going on here–the poem is a swirl of emotions and images. It mimics the turmoil in the speaker’s own mind, the uncertainty of her thoughts. It seems as if she’s grappling with the notion of mortality and immortality. She doesn’t want to think about them, and yet can’t keep herself from doing so.

Is Heaven a physician?

IS Heaven a physician?
They say that He can heal;
But medicine posthumous
Is unavailable.

Is Heaven an exchequer?
They speak of what we owe;
But that negotiation
I ’m not a party to.

~Emily Dickinson

For today’s poem, a prompt: compare a place or state of being to a person, as Dickinson does in this poem with Heaven and a physician/an exchequer. It’s an odd comparison, but it works. What place or state of being can you compare to a human being in a way that unpacks some of its significance?


I NEVER saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God, 5
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson is wonderfully confounding. Sometimes I can’t for the life of me figure out what she’s talking about. Other times, it’s crystal clear. This is one of those clear ones. The diction and syntax are simple, almost childlike. This is a poem a young child could understand, and that fits with her theme of faith.

In this poem, the certainty of rhythm, rhyme, and syntax mirrors the certainty of the speaker. Hers is a childlike faith, which the Bible upholds as the exemplar for everyone. It’s a simple poem, but also masterful in its simplicity.

Bleak parts, salubrious hours

To help our bleaker parts
Salubrious hours are given,
Which if they do not fit for earth
Drill silently for heaven.

~Emily Dickinson

Puzzling over this one. I had to look up “salubrious”–it means “healthy” or “health-giving.” What kind of experiences are healthy for “our bleaker parts” and prepare us for heaven rather than earth? This feels like possibly some Puritanical justification of suffering, but I’m not completely sure. This may be because it’s the second day of the school year. The first day was great, but afterwards it hit me just how much I’ve taken on. My bleaker parts could definitely use some help, and I’m not sure my brain is firing on all cylinders. So I’ll leave this poem for now, and go seek out some salubriousness of my own.

Heaven below

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.
God’s residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson often seems to be dancing on or just over the edge of blasphemy. Heaven on earth? God’s residence here, among us? Yet there’s a lot of food for thought here, and in some ways the thrust of this poem is theologically extremely sound. We must make the world we wish for, and if heaven is our aspiration, well, that means we have our work cut out for us. If we don’t find heaven now, will we ever? And if we don’t recognize the divine in the midst of the profane, how will we ever recognize it at all?

Rouge et noir

Soul, wilt thou toss again?
By just such a hazard
Hundreds have lost, indeed,
But tens have won an all.

Angels’ breathless ballot
Lingers to record thee;
Imps in eager caucus
Raffle for my soul.

~Emily Dickinson

The poem’s title, of course, is not Dickinson’s, but it’s evocative. This poem itself strikes me as very different from her usual style and theme. Though Dickinson often delves into darkness, the image of demonic little imps eagerly vying for her soul is a different shade of darkness.

Is she writing about herself? or is she being more philosophical, more general? I wonder what inspired this poem. It’s interesting that in the very first line, the speaker acknowledges that she’s already gambled her soul, at least once–“Soul, wilt thou toss again?” How did the first toss go? If you lose your soul once, can you gamble it again? If you win it once, is it possible to lose it after that?

It’s a strange poem, and raises so many more questions than it answers.


FAR from love the Heavenly Father
Leads the chosen child;
Oftener through realm of briar
Than the meadow mild,

Oftener by the claw of dragon
Than the hand of friend,
Guides the little one predestined
To the native land.

~emily dickinson

I want to do an alternate reading of this poem wherein the little child is delighted to be led by giant dragons who, let’s be real here, are way more interesting than the generic “friend.” The Realm of Briar is a faerie court of wonderfully fey beings, and maybe when the child arrives at the “predestined” land, she turns around and goes back to have the adventure all over again rather than settling for the ease of a life of milk and honey.

But I know what Dickinson is really saying, and I’m feeling it. It’s been a dragony week–a dragony month, beset with obstacles and setbacks of all kinds. I am trying to take comfort in these words, in the idea that all of this struggling is leading somewhere better. It’s hard to see the promised land for the briars when you’re smack in the middle of them, though.

Emily Dickinson, Fangirl

ALL overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of “Currer Bell”,
In quiet Haworth laid.

This bird, observing others,
When frosts too sharp became,
Retire to other latitudes,
Quietly did the same.

But differed in returning;
Since Yorkshire hills are green,
Yet not in all the nests I meet
Can nightingale be seen.

Gathered from any wanderings,
Gethsemane can tell
Through what transporting anguish
She reached the asphodel!

Soft falls the sounds of Eden
Upon her puzzled ear;
Oh, what an afternoon for heaven,
When Brontë entered there!

~EMily dickinson

Today is the anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s death, so this poem seems fitting. It’s rife with tantalizing details. Why is the moss “cunning”? Why does Dickinson describe the grave as a “cage”–it works with the bird imagery later in the poem, but also suggests entrapment. Dickinson also uses Bronte’s male pen name, Currer Bell.

In the second stanza, the psuedo-male author is suddenly a bird. The reference to Bronte “observing others” seems to allude to the fact that, of all the Bronte siblings, Charlotte was last to die. It’s difficult to imagine what it must be like to lose all your sisters and brothers well before even middle age, to be the last one left.

The metaphor gets tangled here–first Bronte is a bird who sees other birds flying south, meaning that she is watching those around her die. But in the third stanza, she “differed in returning,” meaning that, unlike migratory birds, she didn’t come back. But the people represented poetically by those birds didn’t come back, either–within the space of a very few words, Dickinson complicates her own metaphor. The people around Bronte are birds, but then they are suddenly actual migratory birds and not people, and the difference between them and Bronte is that Bronte is dead, not just gone for a while. This metaphorical tricksiness makes me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with its tales of humans who are simultaneously human and not-human. There’s something weirdly mythical about the Charlotte Bronte Dickinson is describing, something elusive and slippery. She’ll never come back–but she has left traces.

In the fourth stanza Dickinson, who was certainly no stranger to surviving the deaths of others, imagines Bronte’s “transporting anguish,” offering a tiny glimpse into the reality of Bronte’s life and death. This expression of empathy for the moment of death echoes that in Dickinson’s poem that begins “To know just how he suffered would be dear.”

It’s the final stanza, though, that, for me, makes the entire poem. “Oh, what an afternoon for heaven/When Bronte entered there!” With the inclusion of the last name in the last stanza, Dickinson transforms Bronte back from a bird to a human–and this transformation is new and different because this time Bronte is identified by her real name, not her male nom de plume. The reclusive female poet reaches back through time and space to a literary foremother, one of the women who paved the way for every single one of us today who has the audacity to pick up a pen or open a file.

I wonder what Dickinson thought of Bronte’s decision to publish under a male name, of her decision to publish at all. Did she admire the courage it took, identify with the reclusiveness inherent in the use of a pseudonym? Did she look up to Bronte? Envy her? See her as a sister in arms?

What I love most about the last stanza is the unabashed admiration of the last two lines. Dickinson imagines Bronte’s arrival in heaven as a windfall for paradise. “Oh, what an afternoon for heaven.”

I wonder if Emily and Charlotte are together right now, discussing life and writing over a celestial cup of tea.