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—
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|
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.