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16 January 2020

The Province of the Saved

The Province of the Saved
Should be the Art—To save—
Through Skill obtained in Themselves—
The Science of the Grave

No Man can understand
But He that hath endured
The Dissolution—in Himself—
That Man—be qualified

To qualify Despair
To Those who failing new—
Mistake Defeat for Death—Each time—
Till acclimated—to—
                                     F659 (1863)  J539

Dickinson stakes a position contrary to the Calvinist/Protestant teachings she grew up with and at least somewhat in sync with the Buddhist concepts of bodhisattva and upaya-kausalya – skillful means. While she depicts Salvation here as self achieved, aided by those who have experienced Dissolution, Calvinist doctrine insists that salvation and damnation are predestined by God and that skill has nothing to do with it.

(Note: I haven't studied either Buddhism or American Transcendentalism enough to write authoritatively or even, perhaps, competently, about how bodisattvas and upaya-kausalya might surface in Dickinson's poetry – or even if I am being clear and accurate on the subject. Buddhist readers, please help out here as needed.)

For me, the poem is best understood if stanza breaks are not considered indicators of thought units – or even sentences. I read the sense groupings as follows:

"The Province of the Saved / Should be the Art – To save – / Through Skill obtained in Themselves – (.)  /

The Science of the Grave // No Man can understand / But He that hath endured / The Dissolution – in Himself – (.)

That Man – be qualified // To qualify Despair / To Those who failing new – / Mistake Defeat for Death – Each time – / Till acclimated to – (.)

The progression begins boldly: The Art and duty of the Saved is to use their internally-achieved Skills to save others. Dickinson dispenses with the pre-ordaining Deity right off the bat.
        Such saved persons have experienced a Dissolution of self and gained, perhaps, a transcendental understanding of life/death. This helps them ameliorate the suffering of those who are caught up in cycles of defeat and despair.

Dickinson's saved people who emerge from Dissolution to help others are like the bodhisattvas who, although worthy of nirvana, choose rebirth in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Their Art arises within, from the state of self dissolution. The dissolving of the I into something cosmic is a Transcendentalist idea that Dickinson might well have picked up from reading Emerson.
        The Art and Skill evoke Buddhist Upaya kausalya – "skillful means" or "skill-in-means". It is the tool of the bodhisattva and also, in this poem, of the Saved. It is "an insight capable of formulating the most effective method" to liberate or save (Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism, Leslie Kawamura, p.216).
Guanyin, the bodhisattva associated
with compassion

Dickinson has written of despair in earlier poems as a numb and lifeless emotional state. In this poem it is the result of repeated failings and defeats that each time seems like a death – until the sufferer is inured into numb despair.
        A simple reading of this poem is that only a person who has experienced the personal dissolution this process would entail is able to 'qualify' or lessen the pain of a sufferer.

Dickinson uses a variety of poetic devices that knit the stanzas together. The first is quiet, with sibilances in every line: Province, Saved, Should, save, Skill, Themselves, Science. The repetition and long-'a' rhymes of Saved, save, obtained, and Grave give it a stately pace. We feel that the poem will be abstract and philosophical – and it is.
The second stanza is more forceful with more hard consonants and many short-'a' syllables: Man, can, understand, that, hath, That, Man, qualified. The rhymes end in hard consonants: understand, endured, qualified. It's a hard truth the poet wants to tell and the stern and authoritative tone reinforces that. The final word in the stanza, 'qualified', leads to the next stanza with its repeating 'qualify'.
The last stanza's topic is Despair and Dickinson suggests the open-ended bleakness of the emotion with open-ended lines. 'Despair' at the end of the first line suggests 'air' – as if the line had petered out into white space. Dickinson writes 'failing new –' to close the second line rather than 'fail anew', which would make more sense, and in so doing gains the echo of 'knew'. The despairing know they are failing, they know defeat.
The long syllables in the spondee 'Each time–' draw out the penultimate line. Despair comes from knowing failure time and time again. The final line simply gives up. The reader must supply the last word subsumed in the empty space following the trailing off, dash-enclosed 'to'. Despair, then, is the acclimating to failing or defeat.

For all of that, the poem offers hope. There are the Saved, the bodhisattvas uniquely qualified to ease the pain of Despair.


  1. I can't write about Buddhism with any authority either, but I like your argument all the same. The idea that the "Saved" have to pass through the "Grave" seems to describe people like the bodhisattvas who pass through death but come back to this world to help the ones behind. I also like the way you rewrite the stanzas so we can follow the thoughts of the poem.

    Is there a hint about the Christian notion of the Fortunate Fall: that humans are "lucky" to have sinned and found death so that we can experience God's forgiveness and a reprieve from death? The saved are lucky to have experience death (metaphorically? literally?) because it gives them knowledge and appreciation for life. Weird thought, maybe. Hope it makes sense.

    1. hmmm... if one were confident of being saved -- which in Dickinson's milieu one could not be -- one could find joy in salvation and the reprieve from the wages of sin.

      Now that I think more about the poem, I wonder if ED wasn't implying that the 'saved' of her day weren't doing their job, so to speak, either because they weren't interested in whatever contribution they might make towards the salvation of others or because they hadn't paid the price. Either interpretation, of course, would run against the predestined Elect doctrine.


  2. This poem was a good/inspiring one.

    So often religious people tout pious platitudes that reflect a mental understanding of a concept but the mental understanding does not have fidelity - it does not land and deeply imprint the heart - the spirit, soul, and body in holistic fashion. As Thoreau said "I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear". For truth to truly be true truth, for that which is not life to be removed and what is left be only that which results after we "cut a broad swath and shave close" and "drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms." I think, more than just eschewing human connection by going into nature in monastic fashion as Thoreau did, what Dickinson references is something that includes Thoreau and the transcendentalist naturalist concept and yet more. To learn "the science of the grave" - we must understand death in some measure. I wonder if this is perhaps that which the mystics have referred to as "the dark night of the soul." But this dark not is not something we choose. It chooses us, much like Dickinson (I believe) felt that her vocation as a poet chose her rather than the other way around. There was a sacredness to it that was more than personal preference. It was a holy thing. Thus her white dress.

    1. Thank you for the well-chosen Thoreau quotes! I agree that 'the science of the grave' is a key line. I hadn't thought of it before, but she makes the explicit point that death can, probably should be thought of rationally, scientifically. The dissolution reckoned with. Religion doesn't factor here. I'm not sure I understand the line, but it is certainly evocative.

  3. To me the dissolution speaks not so much to a "secret knowledge" granted to the initiated into ecstasies of spirituality. It speaks to the opposite - to the grit that comes for those who have endured suffering and come through it to the other side. It is not a secret knowledge as much as a public humiliation of sorts.

    I wonder if she's on some level referring to an "earned authority" that comes from suffering; that is, things we have learned through blood, sweat, and tears in the gymnasium of life we have often unintentionally, unwittingly, with no desire or design, been in, that have (most often to our surprise) prepared us with strength to give to others.

    When we experience the dissolution in all of its horror/distress (perhaps for Dickinson it was the absurd loneliness she experienced being odd person she was) then we are perhaps then to move (to reference another poem of hers) from paste, having been "qualified for pearl" - the pearl here perhaps a beautiful picture of the nature of suffering that can produce beauty/strength, a gift from our lives to adorn the lives of others.

    1. Ah, you'd already addressed my question above.

      I like the reference to the paste-to-pearl poem.

  4. Thanks for this. There were some Buddhist ideas that influenced Transcendalism. Melville has a poem "Buddha" with the lines: "Swooning swim to less and less; Aspirants to nothingness." Not a particularly good poem or particularly accurate concerning Buddhism -- but I like the word "aspirants" as it evokes mediation on the breath.

    While i doubt that Dickinson had much direct knowledge of Buddhism, some of these ideas may have resonated. I do love this poem, though. "Science of the Grave" and "qualified to qualify" are beautiful lines.

  5. yo this blog is sick, I had a Emily Dickinson Project to do for my honors english class and this blog saved me from having to actually analyze these poems.

  6. This poem anticipates the idea of the “wounded healer”—see Henri Nouwen’s book of that title. You are saved? Bully for you. Now, knowing how to be saved from despair (and knowing the difference between that and death, as so many do not—witness our epidemic of suicide—) what are you doing to help, to “heal” others? Take that, you snooty folks down the road at the Congregational church in Amherst and at Mount Holyoke.
    Calvinist predestination is a tricky doctrine. From what I can gather about 19th century notions, if you “accepted Christ into your life” by signing such pledges as Dickinson refused to sign, you considered yourself “saved.” Hence the smugness of so many of Dickinson’s acquaintances. Did you worry if you might be mistaken? Probably many did. But the steadiest of the churchgoers were reassured on most Sundays that all was well with their souls.

  7. Death and depression, ED's poetic “Grave” and “Despair”, occupied her mind more than most folks would consider mentally healthy. By 1863, at age 32, ED implies she has figured out for herself how to handle the onset of depression, “The Science of the Grave”.

    No one who has not personally endured severe depression cycles is qualified to discuss “Despair” with “Those who failing new— / Mistake Defeat for Death—Each time—” it happens. Only those who have cycled in and out of depression and “obtained in Themselves – / The Science of the Grave” are qualified.

    It takes repeated cycles “Till [the victim of depression is] acclimated – to – ” the mental and emotional episodes.