Greg Darms

Certain Uncertainties: Speculative Readings of Emily Dickinson’s “This World is not conclusion”

Published in: 29. The Career of Freedom

The Brain is wider than the Sky. Best Things dwell out of Sight. A word is dead when it is said.1 Emily Dickinson often wrote such flat, declarative statements at the outset or in the first few lines of her poems, and in their authority they hint at a sense of urgency. Throughout her writing life, Dickinson investigated questions of the ineffable in her own experience through poems and letters. She often begins her writing with what looks like an answer to a question that has not yet actually been posed. An opening statement seemingly declares a truth, and is often followed by surprising alternatives: oppositions, puns, critiques, and openings of language indicate that the original statement is contingent and subject to revision.

The aphoristic statements in Dickinson’s poems, in themselves, suggest closed fact, or certainty, yet they often posit a challenge to think about topics that may never have occurred to us. Left as isolated sentences, they would be more like rhetorical sententiae or the maxims of Pascal, Joubert, or Lichtenberg. The definitive declaration used structurally by Dickinson as a framework, or a kind of beginning speculative thesis, is a key element in her poetics. Rather than logically or essayistically developing the beginning “thesis” through supportive examples, poetic metaphors, lists and variations, or spinning off into related narrative and eventually reaching closure by tying the poem into a neat package, Dickinson subverts and complicates her initial aphoristic statement, effectively opening a can of worms concerning the actual meaning of the first statement, offering reversals and negations as well as different perspectives. Dickinson develops the poem by opening to possible new meanings, preferring to modify, alter, refute, question, and mock, rather than explain, verify, or substantiate. Helen Vendler, in the book “Poets Thinking,” reminds us that “present tenses are many,” and suggests that Dickinson’s favorite is “the philosophical present tense (an ‘eternal’ present, and therefore not a true tense) appearing in axiom and definition. At the beginning, and throughout her poems, Dickinson offers reworkings of multiple “truths” through “tenseless absolutes of confirmed decision” and “epigrams of cognitive impossibility.”2 Paradox itself becomes a truth-value.

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 –


[Fr 373] 1862


The poem “This World is not conclusion.” [Fr 373] was written in 1862 and bound by the poet in a little booklet (Fascicle 18), along with 14 other poems. “This World” follows the much-anthologized “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” [Fr 372], handwritten on the same sheet of paper. Both poems deal with some unidentified existential pain.

The poem begins with a declarative sentence. The word “conclusion” is not capitalized (most of Dickinson’s abstract nouns are capitalized), so it seems it may not be intended to have extra conceptual or metaphysical weight. Since the first line ends with a period (also rare for Dickinson), making it a complete sentence, the second line, “A Species stands beyond -” cannot for sure be taken as the logical continuation of the first line, but may be read as another declaration opening a new line of investigation. “A Species” becomes the main topic in the next lines of the poem, and is described with several curious attributes, presented in not quite opposite dyads: “invisible” / “positive”; “Music” / Sound”; “beckons” / “baffles”; “Philosophy [seeking to know]” / “ dont know”. It is more a riddle and a puzzle than something available to wisdom or scholarship. Men have not succeeded in understanding or achieving it, even in the extreme practice of “Crucifixion, shown.”

But what is this “Species” for Dickinson? We may look at etymology: Webster’s 1844 Dictionary (used by Dickinson) offers two definitions: “1) A distinct sort, form, or kind of something specifically mentioned or implied; 2) A less emotive or euphemistic alternative for ‘dead person’; a deceased or departed person; an immortal human soul.” The second definition seems to have been used in that period, but it disappears entirely from subsequent Webster’s editions, and cannot be found among the 14 current and archaic definitions found in the O.E.D. But we do find older derivations: originally from Latin “appearance, kind” from specere, “to behold”; so a mental image, an object of thought correlative with a natural object.

We may consider Linnaeus’ binomial classification and naming (Genus and Species) for animals and plants, a system widely taught in Dickinson’s time and used by her in the identification and labeling of plants in her own herbarium. We may consider the new thinking about life following Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1854 (the book was in the Dickinson family library), which presented life as evolutionary, or, we might say, as species evolving to “species beyond.” We might also compare her use of the term “Species” in five other poems: as a new kind of garden flower [Fr 72]; hierarchically, in which a species is more exalted than a name [Fr 294]; as a sort of person who does not die (as in Webster’s 1844) [Fr 390]; and as familiar flowers that perish and disappear with the seasons [Fr 446, Fr 843].

The word offers many possible readings, and this is consistent with Dickinson’s dealing with doubt and paradox. “Species” is not a genus or a class, let alone a kingdom or (except perhaps as noted in [Fr 294]) any kind of hierarchical category, general name, or concept of a more ideal, divine, or heavenly place.

“Faith” is introduced as a new topic midway in the poem. Personified as a waif or inexperienced traveler, faith “slips,” “laughs,” “rallies,” and “blushes” as it seems to seek its way. Reminiscent of Don Quixote, it “Plucks at a twig of Evidence” [perhaps the Cross?] and “asks a Vane, the way.” None of this seems to work, and while faith is not entirely discounted, it is presented as being comically unsuccessful in approaching or apprehending the “Species.”

Then the church offers advice and “strong hallelujahs,” but these are no less effective. Finally, “Narcotics” (Webster’s 1844: “medicine that suppresses pain”)—possibly in this case scriptural and ecclesiastical balms and promises—are not sufficient to answer or address a recurrent, nagging pain, the “Tooth / That nibbles at the soul.”

This poem has commonly been read as dealing with the existence of and belief in an after-life. It even was given the title “Immortality” when the first 12 lines (ending with “Crucifixion”) were posthumously published by Mabel Loomis Todd. Dickinson was immersed in the culture of an older Puritanism, a liberalizing Enlightenment thought including Emerson and Transcendentalism, and a new popular “sentimental or domestic religiosity.” Puritanism offered a “framework” in which “value and meaning are to be discovered by scrutinizing the soul; real life is within” (Gary Lee Stonum).3 Dickinson’s own sensibility is for a “God” deeply felt and nearly apprehended as a difference within the self as well as outward in nature, as alternately or simultaneously ephemeral moment and deep time. But God, eternity, and depth of existence are not experienced or known by contract, or as scriptural pronouncement (“Much Gesture, from the Pulpit”). This poem may then be read, somewhat straightforwardly, as a critique of conventional religion as Dickinson experienced it. Even though some kind of life, “A Species,” may stand beyond this world, it is neither adequately defined nor described by scriptures or interpreting preachers, nor are the cultural edifices of Philosophy and the Pulpit really helpful in apprehending its reality.

Alternately, and more interestingly, by the end of the poem we are in a position to read the first two lines from a different position than a simple critique of existing institutions and thought. Shira Wolosky contends that Dickinson belongs to a tradition of writing in New England she calls “theo-linguistic thought,” which also includes Jonathan Edwards and Horace Bushnell,4 and that for Dickinson “reflections on language take place in modes that are overtly theological.”5 This shifts the focus on a poem nominally about a transcendent God or the future afterlife to one of experience and expression of the present through language. Read in this light, “This World” is just that—living, being, thinking, experiencing—and is not meant to be (only) the necessary prerequisite and counterpart to another life after death. If we separate one’s personal experience of and faith in a felt immanence or transcendence from the prescriptions of institutionalized thinking, then questions, meanings, life experiences, spiritual experiences—even poems—may open to more richness than scriptural representation might provide. In this kind of reading, “A Species” can be another kind of world or something new and different and unique in this world—even, perhaps, embracing immortality. A species, rather than being general (as genus, family, and class of biology and kingdom of both biology and theology), is special and specific, and although it represents an individual or unique type, it is part of processes that are transformative.

This species is changeable, and knows itself as such. As Dickinson wrote (letter to Otis Lord 3:728, 1882): “we both believe, and disbelieve, a hundred times an hour.” Although he eventually maintains that Dickinson “held on to Trinitarian categories in her thinking about God and the self,” Roger Lundin allows that she “both doubted and believed,” and was “intensely focused on her inward life.”6

Jennifer Leader, also placing Dickinson in a tradition of thinking and writing that includes Jonathan Edwards, shows how Dickinson constructs “typological equations pointing toward a God outside of known being” through her meditations on nature and the ineffable in which “nature as experienced through language is an always-bygone-and-yet-to-be encounter with present completion and totality.”7 The notion that this world is not conclusion indicates that this encounter with intensity, which Dickinson elsewhere characterizes as “White Heat8 and “the Hour of Lead,”9 is not a finished transaction and is not completed, although it may have been felt before and exists as real possibility in the future. Each “next” in this world is, and leads to, a particular experience of the self, of the world, perhaps even of God.


In the short poem “Of Paradise’ existence” [Fr 1421], the uncapitalized oxymoron “the uncertain certainty” reiterates the multiplicity of possible readings for “A Species” in [Fr 373].


Of Paradise’ existence

All we know

Is the uncertain certainty –

But it’s vicinity, infer,

By it’s Bisecting Messenger –


Whether Paradise here is heaven or earth, this poem at least demonstrates what Elisa New has termed Dickinson’s “commitment to the unknown.”10 Not only does the poet here express pervasive unknowing about the most significant issues, but the one thing that IS known can only be inferred by some kind of mysterious personified geometrical go-between. The questions of what is bisected here—the self, time, the Gordian knot of ignorance, dualities of different kinds—and that of the curious Bisecting Messenger—offer many creative possibilities for speculative reading.

I take the notion of speculative reading from the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, via one of the best speculative readers of his writings, Isabelle Stengers. In her essay “A Constructivist Reading of Process and Reality” she states that “the value of concepts is to lure new feelings, to induce a ‘sheer disclosure’ as a new way for experience to come to matter. Each abstraction is mutely appealing for an imaginative leap” where what is at stake is “the implementation of the possibility of relevant novelty.”11 In this not-concluded world and its species (or “sequel”, Dickinson’s variant for “species”), the focus is on the nexts: next moment, next identity, feeling, stage of process, meaning, transformation, certainty, confusion, loss, birth, death. The real of this world is always creatively becoming that of the next. It is always much more than its show at any one time, place, or perspective. That this world is not concluded leaves all the room in this world and the next for opening to awareness of possibilities and participating in the coming-to-be.

One can imagine Dickinson composing certain of her poems with an attitude of “What If?” We can also read with that attitude. Looking briefly at just a few ways one could inquisitively approach several other poems in this adventurous frame of reading and thinking opens interesting possibilities.

  • Against the “too minute Area” and “too concluded show” in “This Dust, and it’s Feature” [Fr 866] is the stake of the real of this world, in all its depths, extensions, relationships, and existential affects. What becomes important beyond the constrained world is the apprehension of multiple layers of time and myriad untimely immortalities.
  • “No life . . . nor any death . . . nor tie to Earths to come . . . nor action new . . . except through this extent” in “I have no life but this ” [Fr 1432] relates suspension of investment in the given rhetorics of identity and belief, substituting immersion in the unqualified connections of love. As Michel Foucault provocatively puts it: “The target . . . is . . . to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and to build up what we could be . . . We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of the individuality which has been imposed on us.”12
  • The declaration that “But just the Primer to a life . . . suits me so” in “Not in this World to see his face” [Fr 435] affirms the strong feelings of greater value in choosing this life of uncertainty by learning the rudiments of intense experience and the always creative language of being alive, over the finality of some definition of an afterlife, “a Book to know.”
  • Similarly, “Sweet skepticism of the heart” [Fr 1438] is chosen over “the delicious throe of transport filled with fear,” and is, like the choice of “the Primer,” an affirmation of the questions (“that knows – and does not know”) of finite living and loving, over dead certain answers.

Patrick J. Keane identifies three generic views of Dickinson’s readers towards her religious life. Either she was “essentially a traditional believer” so her skepticism is occasional and passing; “essentially a rebel” so her quasi-orthodox poems are aberrations; or her “spiritual longings were genuine” but she “keeps believing nimble”, so her variety allows range as speculative artist and thinker. Athough I am sure there are many pleasures and insights to be had from the first two viewpoints (Keane seems to occupy all three), I am clearly in the latter category. In a hermeneutic mode, Keane further states “we may still, in venturing an interpretation, only approximate an absolutely definitive reading. Nevertheless, there is a considerable difference between utter verbal indeterminacy (the deconstructionist’s play of infinitely diverse readings) and a reasonably determinate meaning—even if, in some instances, the latter will prove to be a meaning determinately ambiguous.”13 While I agree, I take that “ambiguity” in Dickinson’s poems to stretch not into infinite diversity, but into a plurality of meaning and states of being, into that place where “A Species stands beyond” and where for the poet, as well as for the reader, “Of itself / The Soul should stand in Awe.”14

Dickinson’s temporary closures and frequent imaginative disclosures leave doubts and unanswered questions while affirming the reality of something sensed or intuited beyond. With the divided subjectivity, in-betweenness, and permanent fissures in the paratactic lines of her poems, one challenge in reading Dickinson is to find in the poet and in oneself, in the words of Lyn Hejinian, “The secret that sits at the core of one’s singularity.” Each flight of language is eccentrically singular, yet new compositions are continually suggested and formed. The poem is a paradoxically “closed” reminder that the universe is open-ended: “I / could probe more deeply / here // is true of anywhere.”15 As Jennifer Leader has observed, Dickinson “explores both immanence and transcendence.”16 Something has been touched, and opened, in the poem, but perhaps nothing has been completely reached. What looks like negative theology or skeptical (perhaps ironic) philosophy of the sublime may actually be positive speculation: the actual presented alongside the virtual, possibility and poetry dwelling in spiritual transit and traveling in an eternal present or residing on the circumference of deep time. And always, perhaps standing beyond, there is “internal difference, / Where the [significantly plural] meanings are.”17­


References and Notes

  1. These are the first lines from three Dickinson poems: Fr 598; FR 1012; Fr 278. All references to poems by Emily Dickinson are to R.W. Franklin / The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
  1. Helen Vendler / Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  1. Gary Lee Stonum / The Dickinson Sublime. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
  1. Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) was an American revivalist preacher, philosopher, and Congregationalist Protestant theologian. Horace Bushnell (1802 – 1876) was an American Congregational minister and theologian.
  1. Shira Wolosky / “The Metaphysics of Language in Emily Dickinson (As Translated by Paul Celan)”, in Leonard (ed) Trajectories of Mysticism in Theory and Literature. Cross-Currents in Religion and Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
  1. Roger Lundin / Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.
  1. Jennifer L. Leader / Knowing, Seeing, Being: Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and American Typological Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016.
  1. Fr 401, phrase underlined in Dickinson’s autograph manuscript
  1. Fr 372
  1. Elisa New / The Line’s Eye: Poetic Experience, American Sight. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  1. Isabelle Stengers, “A Constructivist Reading of Process and Reality” in The Lure of Whitehead, Nicholas Gaskill and A.J. Nocek, editors. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
  1. Michel Foucault / “Afterword” to Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  1. Patrick J. Keane / Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008.
  1. Fr 579
  1. Lyn Hejinian / Positions of the Sun. Berkeley: Belladonna, 2018.
  1. Jennifer Leader, ibid.
  1. Fr 320

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