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.


Sleep is supposed to be,
By souls of sanity,
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be,
By people of degree,
The breaking of the day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall aurora be
East of eternity;

One with the banner gay,
One in the red array,—
That is the break of day.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Tobias Bjorkli on Pexels.

Sleep is supposed to be simply shutting our eyes. But instead, it is a journey to another world–a station from whence one can depart to anywhere. The first couple of stanzas, in true Emily fashion, seem simple enough.

Then we move farther into the poem. Morning is supposed to be daybreak. So far so good–but Dickinson interrupts us, shifts gears. Instead of telling us what morning actually is to her, she says that it hasn’t happened. It is always tempting to suppose that she’s talking about death. But maybe here she’s talking about resurrection instead–morning is the thing that comes after every night, but true morning is the life after death.

It is completely frustrating interesting to me that I can spend a whole flipping year with Dickinson and still not really know what she’s talking about. I wonder if she’s playing with me, with her readers. Did she write in a kind of shorthand purely for herself? Or was she fully aware of playing with her someday readers, writing in riddles to tease us?

not Death

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine –

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –

When everything that ticked – has stopped –
And space stares – all around –
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground –

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or spar –
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair.

~Emily Dickinson

This is the Poe poem of Dickinson poems. So many fantastic details: hot breezes that “crawl” across the flesh, cold feet, bodies laid out for burial, a claustrophobic framing of a life, “grisly frosts,” the silence of a midnight when “everything that ticked – has stopped,” and space staring back at us.

The speaker insists that she’s not dead, but details all the parallels between her own state and death, while also outlining the differences. She is in a moment of existential crisis–a moment of perfect silence when she is left utterly alone with herself in the universe. What is the crisis, precisely? It’s not until the final stanza that she breaks from describing the symptoms to identify the disease, the dis – ease. She is “Without a Chance, or spar – Or even a Report of Land.” In the final line, the final word, of the poem, she names the answer to the riddle.

Necromancer, landlord

What inn is this
Where for the night
Peculiar traveller comes?
Who is the landlord?
Where the maids?
Behold, what curious rooms!
No ruddy fires on the hearth,
No brimming tankards flow.
Necromancer, landlord,
Who are these below?

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

When this project began, I knew Emily Dickinson was into death, but I had no idea just how good she was at being creepy. This poem is no exception. I assume this poem is about death/the grave, but my imagination keeps snagging on the phrase “Necromancer, landlord.” A necromancer is someone who communicates with the dead as a magical practice, presumably a living someone. Is the necromancer the keeper of the graveyard? Or someone/something more nebulous? Who knows? What I do know is that the image of the necromantic keeper of this macabre hotel “below” makes for a wonderfully creepy poem.

The music of the spheres

Musicians wrestle everywhere:
All day, among the crowded air,
I hear the silver strife;
And—waking long before the dawn—
Such transport breaks upon the town
I think it that “new life!”

It is not bird, it has no nest;
Nor band, in brass and scarlet dressed,
Nor tambourine, nor man;
It is not hymn from pulpit read,—
The morning stars the treble led
On time’s first afternoon!

Some say it is the spheres at play!
Some say that bright majority
Of vanished dames and men!
Some think it service in the place
Where we, with late, celestial face,
Please God, shall ascertain!

~Emily Dickinson
Harmony of the World
Image via Wikipedia.

The sun is about to crest the horizon. While I have sat at my desk this morning, the sky has bled from black to whisper-pale violet and coral to predawn blue. Birds have begun singing, though their chorus is nowhere near as exuberant as it was a month ago.

What is the music Dickinson is talking about in this poem, and who are the musicians? She tells us that they are not birds–but then, what are they? Is their music even audible, or is she describing a sound beyond sound, one of those ethereal experiences of insight into a world past our own?

Is she referring to the music of the spheres, the ancient notion that the movements of the planets in the heavens corresponded to a kind of song? There is something very Dickinson-y about this.

Maybe she is talking, too, about inspiration, or its source. It is invisible. It comes from seemingly nowhere and everywhere, and not everyone can hear it at all times. In the final stanza, the speaker merely puts forward others’ theories–some say it is the spheres, some say it is the departed (ghosts? angels?), and some say it is the sound of Heaven itself.

She ends on this note. Uncertainty. But also possibility. Whence does the music flow? One day, hopefully, we will learn.

The Ocean

An everywhere of silver,
With ropes of sand
To keep it from effacing
The track called land.

~Emily Dickinson

A riddle–not even a complete sentence, but a suggestive fragment, in Dickinson’s characteristic painterly style with words. The ocean is an everywhere, a water planet, though we land-dwelling creatures tend to forget this. It is only a narrow band of sand that separates the realm of the mermaids from our own narrow track.

the Atlantic at twilight


BRING me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning’s flagons up,
And say how many dew;
Tell me how far the morning leaps,
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadths of blue!

Write me how many notes there be
In the new robin’s ecstasy
Among astonished boughs;
How many trips the tortoise makes,
How many cups the bee partakes,—
The debauchee of dews!

Also, who laid the rainbow’s piers,
Also, who leads the docile spheres
By withes of supple blue?
Whose fingers string the stalactite,
Who counts the wampum of the night,
To see that none is due?

Who built this little Alban house
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who ’ll let me out some gala day,
With implements to fly away,
Passing pomposity?

~Emily dickinson

This is peak Dickinson. This is perhaps The Most Emily Poem of all time. For starters, it’s a riddle. Dickinson piles on question after question, never answering them. There’s also a lot of exclaiming and rapture about nature. She mentions robins. She mentions bees. She even describes bees as “debauchee of dews,” a phrase she uses in another poem, the better-known “I taste a liquor never brewed.”

There are lots of unanswerable questions, lots of breathless delightings in the glories of nature. There are oodles of gorgeous and quirky descriptions: “how many dew,” “astonished boughs,” “withes of supple blue,” and on and on. There’s an obscure references–what is an “Alban house”? Is she talking about Scotland? Why?? Or is she referencing the saint? Again, why?? And, of course, in true Dickinsonian fashion, the poem ends in death–with the promise of resurrection.

Oriole, Part 2

ONE of the ones that Midas touched,
Who failed to touch us all,
Was that confiding prodigal,
The blissful oriole.

So drunk, he disavows it
With badinage divine;
So dazzling, we mistake him
For an alighting mine.

A pleader, a dissembler,
An epicure, a thief,—
Betimes an oratorio,
An ecstasy in chief;

The Jesuit of orchards,
He cheats as he enchants
Of an entire attar
For his decamping wants.

The splendor of a Burmah,
The meteor of birds,
Departing like a pageant
Of ballads and of bards.

I never thought that Jason sought
For any golden fleece;
But then I am a rural man,
With thoughts that make for peace.

But if there were a Jason,
Tradition suffer me
Behold his lost emolument
Upon the apple-tree.

~Emily dickinson

There is a lot happening in this poem–so much that I don’t know where to begin. I chose it to follow up yesterday’s oriole poem–it seemed like a good idea at the time. But I don’t know what to do with this one. It’s crammed with classical allusions, bizarre and gorgeous metaphors and similes, maybe a zing aimed at Jesuits, and Emily writing as a “rural man.”

Did Midas touch the oriole? Is it Midas or the oriole who failed to touch us all? What the heck is “an alighting mine”? “The meteor of birds,/Departing like a pageant” is a shimmeringly lovely description. But then what’s up with the golden fleece business, and what does that have to do with being “a rural man,/With thoughts that make for peace?” And the word “emolument” is one I can’t read without a certain modern cringing at current events.

I think she’s saying that the oriole’s music is like gold, but that’s about all I’ve got. I wonder if Dickinson is throwing words at paper in a sort of poetic stream of consciousness and seeing what sticks. I like the poem, but I don’t know exactly what to make of it. What do you think?

Oriole, Part 1

TO hear an oriole sing
May be a common thing,
Or only a divine.

It is not of the bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto crowd.

The fashion of the ear
Attireth that it hear
In dun or fair.

So whether it be rune,
Or whether it be none,
Is of within;

The “tune is in the tree,”
The sceptic showeth me;
“No, sir! In thee!”

~emily dickinson

This is a weird and wonderful poem. Structurally it’s very different from most Dickinson poems, with its three-line stanzas. The last line of each is markedly shorter than the first two. There is an abrupt, revelatory feel to these short lines, as if Dickinson is demanding that we sit up straight and pay attention because something important is about to be unfolded. The whole thing reads like some obscure ancient riddle.

I think what she’s saying is that the music of birdsong is within each of us–that is, the perception of the song as music. The “only” in the first stanza is interesting. “Or only a divine” sounded to me on the first few readings as if the poet was saying “only” in the sense of “merely,” which feels odd and yet somehow perfectly Dickinsonian, minimizing the divine for some kind of effect. But on about the third reading I wonder if she means “only” in the sense of “purely” or “exclusively.”

This whole poem is like a riddle, the answer of which is different for each person because it is buried deep within ourselves, like our perception of the oriole’s song.

Riddles in the Dark

It’s like the light,—
A fashionless delight,
It’s like the bee,—
A dateless melody.

It’s like the woods,
Private like breeze,
Phraseless, yet it stirs
The proudest trees.

It’s like the morning,—
Best when it’s done,—
The everlasting clocks
Chime noon.

~Emily Dickinson

After many sodden months, the March winds have finally arrived. They howl like wild things, like Grendel alone and friendless outside the mead hall. They sigh fitfully. They gust and caress, rant and hum through the bowing branches of the pines.

The local joke this summer when people complained about the wet weather was that it only rained twice–once for forty days, and once for thirty days. It’s been soggy here, the woods burgeoning with fungus, paths carved out by water. Autumn and winter were wet, too. Rain. Snow. Freezing rain. Sleet. Rain. Again.

At last the winds are here, and their cries are a benediction, better than a rainbow after flood. Gardens are beginning to dry out enough to till. The paths through the woods are no longer treacherously slick. Pearly songs burst from the throats of the little birds that fluff their feathers in the welcome sunlight.

I chose today’s poem because, in my edition of Dickinson’s poems, it’s titled “The Wind.” But each time I read it, I feel pulled farther away from that notion. Wind is like light. It is a dateless melody, it’s phraseless, and it does stir the trees. But other parts of this riddle-poem just don’t seem to work if the answer is really “the wind.” This is a poem I can imagine fitting neatly into Bilbo and Gollum’s riddle-contest. Just when you think you know the answer, the riddle makes a twist. Who would compare the wind to a breeze? What kind of clue is that?

We know that Dickinson didn’t title her poems–they were titled posthumously. In many cases, I have to wonder what the poem-titler was thinking. This is definitely one of those cases.

So what is she writing about? If I’d had to answer this one, I’d probably have had to throw on my invisibility ring and slip out the back way. I don’t know what she’s talking about. It’s the last stanza that really throws me–the notion that morning is best when it’s done. I like morning when it’s happening, but Dickinson seems to be using morning as a metaphor for something that’s best gotten through, gotten over with.

I have no answers for this one. What do you think?