Image:Â 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.
Emily Dickinsonâ€™s poem, â€œThis World is not Conclusionâ€ 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 Americaâ€™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 Dickinsonâ€™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.
â€œThis World is not Conclusionâ€ is one famous example of Dickinsonâ€™s oscillation between faith and doubt, or â€œnimble believing,â€ as James McIntosh calls it. Here is the poem in full:
This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyondâ€”
Invisible, as Musicâ€”
But positive, as Soundâ€”
It beckons, and it bafflesâ€”
Philosophy, dont knowâ€”
And through a Riddle, at the lastâ€”
Sagacity, must goâ€”
To guess it, puzzles scholarsâ€”
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shownâ€”
Faith slipsâ€”and laughs, and ralliesâ€”
Blushes, if any seeâ€”
Plucks at a twig of Evidenceâ€”
And asks a Vane, the wayâ€”
Much Gesture, from the Pulpitâ€”
Strong Hallelujahs rollâ€”
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soulÂ â€“
The poem begins relatively surefootedly with statements about the afterlife. â€œA Species stands beyond,â€ refers to people who have died, watching, â€œbeckoningâ€ and â€œbaffling.â€ Dickinsonâ€™s choice of the word â€œspeciesâ€ is quite interesting, as it has Darwinian overtones and foreshadows the doubt to come. â€œPhilosophy,â€ trying to fathom the mystery, is so confused itâ€™s grammatically inept. â€œThrough a Riddle,â€ refers to death. It is through the Riddle that we come to know, finally, what there is in the afterlife. But, notice â€œSagacityâ€ 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 â€œMen who have born/ Contempt of Generations,â€ some of whom were willing to face â€œCrucifixion.â€
And yet, puzzlement resumes. â€œFaith,â€ seen here as a running girl who trips, â€œlaughs and rallies/ Blushes if any see.â€ She is portrayed as â€œa silly young girl meandering blithely toward an uncertain destination.â€ She â€œPlucks at a twig of Evidence,â€ but is still unsure of the way.
The final quatrain begins with a sermon, â€œmuch gestureâ€ and â€œstrong hallelujahs.â€ Again, a nod to certainty, but not enough to smother doubt. The poem ends: â€œNarcotics cannot still the Tooth/ That nibbles at the soul.â€ A â€œnibblingâ€ that doesnâ€™t finish, that never ends, leaves the poem to trail off into nothingness. Some believe that the Tooth is doubt. Others believe it is â€œthe possibility of an afterlife that beckons and baffles earlier. It is not so much the tooth of â€˜doubtâ€™ as of Dickinsonâ€™s doubt-that-is-also-faith that keeps nibbling comically beyond the borders of the poem.â€
Thus, the beauty of Dickinsonâ€™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 doesnâ€™t resolve. But God is always there in the background waiting for us to return, even in the midst of ambiguity.
QuestionsÂ 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 youâ€™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?
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 donâ€™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.
 McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. University of Michigan Press, 2000.
 Kornfield, Susan. â€œthe prowling beeâ€ blog: â€œThis World is Not Conclusion.â€ http://bloggingdickinson.blogspot.com/2012/11/this-world-is-not-conclusion.html Accessed August 1, 2016.
 McIntosh, 33.
 Kornfield, â€œThis World is not Conclusion.â€
 Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985. Quoted in McIntosh, 33.
 McIntosh, 33.
About the author:
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 25 years, 14 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.