Faith and Doubt in Emily Dickinson’s “This World is not Conclusion”

512px-Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype_(cropped)

Image: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848, cropped and retouched. (Original is scratched.) From the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. In the public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Reflection

Emily Dickinson’s poem, “This World is not Conclusion” is a paradigmatic example of her ambivalence about Christian faith. It reveals, as many of her poems do, her struggle with doubt. Regarded today as one of America’s greatest poets, Dickinson lived a solitary life in Amherst, Massachusetts in the middle of the 19th century. Like Robert Browning, she spanned an age in which many new discoveries and ideas were threatening traditional Christianity.

What is fascinating about Dickinson’s poetry is her wrestling with the mystery of faith, oscillating as she does between the comfort of traditional faith and the gnawing presence of doubt. In many of her poems, she explores her fear of death, her musings about the afterlife, and her doubts that all of it is real. Many poems end in ambiguity, not knowing
which way to lean, which is one reason her work is so original for its time.

“This World is not Conclusion” is one famous example of Dickinson’s oscillation between faith and doubt, or “nimble believing,” as James McIntosh calls it.[1] Here is the poem in full:

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 –

The poem begins relatively surefootedly with statements about the afterlife. “A Species stands beyond,” refers to people who have died,[2] watching, “beckoning” and “baffling.” Dickinson’s choice of the word “species” is quite interesting, as it has Darwinian overtones and foreshadows the doubt to come. “Philosophy,” trying to fathom the mystery, is so confused it’s grammatically inept.[3] “Through a Riddle,” refers to death.[4] It is through the Riddle that we come to know, finally, what there is in the afterlife. But, notice “Sagacity” is left behind, and puzzlement ensues.

Then, Dickinson swings the pendulum back toward certainty, praising martyrs who have given their lives for their faith. She admires the “Men who have born/ Contempt of Generations,” some of whom were willing to face “Crucifixion.”

And yet, puzzlement resumes. “Faith,” seen here as a running girl who trips, “laughs and rallies/ Blushes if any see.” She is portrayed as “a silly young girl meandering blithely toward an uncertain destination.”[5] She “Plucks at a twig of Evidence,” but is still unsure of the way.

The final quatrain begins with a sermon, “much gesture” and “strong hallelujahs.” Again, a nod to certainty, but not enough to smother doubt. The poem ends: “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/ That nibbles at the soul.” A “nibbling” that doesn’t finish, that never ends, leaves the poem to trail off into nothingness. Some believe that the Tooth is doubt. Others believe it is “the possibility of an afterlife that beckons and baffles earlier. It is not so much the tooth of ‘doubt’ as of Dickinson’s doubt-that-is-also-faith that keeps nibbling comically beyond the borders of the poem.”[6]

Thus, the beauty of Dickinson’s poem here is the ambiguous ending. Doubt seeps through the lines as much as faith is grasped, and we are never certain exactly where she will land. For many of us, the war between faith and doubt is like this. There are times that it doesn’t resolve. But God is always there in the background waiting for us to return, even in the midst of ambiguity.

Questions for Reflection

Do you struggle with doubt? Is it sometimes left unresolved? How do you handle those times?

Do you feel God is there, even when you’re struggling with doubt? Why or why not?

Read Genesis 15. How did Abraham handle his doubts here? What does this chapter say about how God responds to our doubts?

Prayer

Great God, thank you that you know we are but dust. Thank you that you understand our doubts, and meet us in our questions. Thank you that you provide everything we need, even when we don’t have all the answers. Thank you for your faithfulness, O God. Help us to pursue you, even when we are unsure of the way.

Notes

[1] McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. University of Michigan Press, 2000.

[2] Kornfield, Susan. “the prowling bee” blog: “This World is Not Conclusion.” http://bloggingdickinson.blogspot.com/2012/11/this-world-is-not-conclusion.html Accessed August 1, 2016.

[3] McIntosh, 33.

[4] Kornfield, “This World is not Conclusion.”

[5] Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985. Quoted in McIntosh, 33.

[6] McIntosh, 33.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Mark Hansard

Mark is on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas, where he ministers to Faculty at Kansas State University and surrounding campuses. He has been in campus ministry 23 years, 12 of those years in faculty ministry. He has a Master's degree in philosophy and theology from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA, and is passionate about Jesus Christ and the life of the mind. Mark, his wife and three daughters make their home in Manhattan.

More Posts

One Comment

  • David Parry commented on January 24, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for this, Mark. Do you know Susan VanZanten’s book Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson (Cascade/Wipf & Stock, 2011)? Susan VanZanten is an English professor at Seattle Pacific University, and this book provides devotional readings of 29 of Dickinson’s poems:
    http://wipfandstock.com/mending-a-tattered-faith.html
    https://www.amazon.com/Mending-Tattered-Faith-Devotions-Dickinson/dp/1608995100/

    There is a lecture by Dr VanZanten on Youtube that looks more broadly at reading poetry devotionally, but includes a discussion of Dickinson’s poem ‘Faith – is the Pierless Bridge’ (about 28 minutes in):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxLnfDw0_9A

    Susan VanZanten has broad interests as a Christian literary scholar – much of her recent work has been on African literature, and she has also written a useful book called Joining the Mission, which gives advice to new faculty particularly at confessionally oriented liberal arts colleges (though I think much of the practical advice is helpful for early career academics at any kind academic institution). She has her own website at http://myhome.spu.edu/vanzan/

Leave a Reply