The loss had been to Me
A Value — for the Greatness' Sake —
As Giants — gone+ away — claimed
Had I presumed to gain
A Favor so remote —
The failure but confirm the Grace
In further Infinite —
'Tis failure — not of Hope —
But Confident+ Despair — diligent, resolute
Advancing on Celestial Lists —
With faint — Terrestrial power —
'Tis Honor — though I die —
For That no Man obtain
Till He be justified by Death —
This — is the Second Gain —
Fr634 (1863) J522
Although this poem might be read in different ways, I think that Dickinson is rejecting the Puritan-derived belief that salvation is obtained through Grace and that Grace is bestowed not earned. Consequently, the speaker avoids the comparatively passive religious path of hope and faith, opting instead to fight for salvation – or at least for Honor.
The concept of Grace in Dickinson's time and place was rooted in Calvinist covenant theology, and the Covenant of Grace stipulates that Christians are saved by faith and that grace is necessary for faith. In a very strict form of Calvinism, only the predestined elect will receive God's irresistible grace. Whatever hope and faith the rest can muster up is futile; salvation is out of their grasp.
Something Dickinson scholar Cynthia Wolff writes about is relevant to this. She has famously referred to Dickinson as a 'pugilist poet' combating God. The phrase comes from the closing lines of Dickinson's last letter to her mentor T.W. Higgison, 1886: "'Audacity of Bliss,' said Jacob to the Angel 'I will not let thee go except I bless thee' – Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct –"(Letter 1042). This rendering completely reverses the Bible story in which Jacob won't let the angel go until Jacob gets blessed. There is something poignant and proud in Dickinson's version where Jacob is not seeking favors but granting one.
The important point that Wolff makes is that Jacob did not receive his covenant with God through obedience or prayer or Grace, but through combat (Emily Dickinson, 142-47). What is more, this point was explicitly taught to Dickinson: "As a girl at Mount Holyoke," Wolff writes, Dickinson herself had been "instructed to wrestle as Jacob and thus to enjoy the coveted goal of confident faith" (144). But neither Jacob nor Dickinson were fighting for faith but for the blessing – or salvation – itself. Dickinson, in this poem, sees faith (the presumption of obtaining the Favor – the saving Grace) as bound to fail.
|Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,
Leon Bonnat, 1876
In the first two stanzas Dickinson writes with the subjunctive voice ("Had I presumed…"). But she hadn't. She had not presumed to hope, nor had she presumed to gain the remote Favor. If she had, she contends, then although she would have failed she still would have benefitted. The hope would necessarily have been so portentous that even its loss would have been elevating. As for the Favor referred to in the second stanza, her unsuccessful efforts to gain it would have illuminated her sense of ungraspable, infinite grace.
There is a certain noble fatalism in the stanzas. The speaker has chosen against engaging in futile hope or faith. In earlier poems she rails against a god who does not care about prayers (Fr581) and who hides 'his rare life / From our gross eyes' (Fr365). And so she has taken Jacob's Pugilist stance. Her failure is not to be of Hope, for she had not hoped, but that of hope's opposite: despair. The seemingly oxymoronic and paradoxical construction of "Confident Despair" is the adult Dickinson's mirror reflection of the Mount Holyoke goal of 'confident faith'. But where faith presumes Grace, Despair, with nothing to lose might indeed venture to wrestle with Heaven, to advance on the Celestial Lists armed with nothing but 'faint – Terrestrial power'.
Confident Despair recognizes that to come face to face with the divine is to battle and not give up no matter how undergunned. For as Jacob's brave endurance won blessing and honor, so, too, the speaker believes she will win Honor. This is her gain, and it is contrasted with the second stanza's doomed attempt to gain the Favor of Grace. In addition to the honor of battle, the speaker looks forward to the 'Second Gain' – that of sanctifying Death.
I admit that my reading of the last stanza – and consequently my understanding of the entire poem – is complicated by the troublesome 'That' and 'This'. Sometimes I feel as if Dickinson is the poet of the Ambiguous Antecedent. A reader suggested in an earlier poem that one read Dickinson sort of with eyes closed, letting the meaning marinate at its own pace. It's a sort of faith on its own.