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Emily Dickinson's "Success is counted sweetest"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - circa age 17, daguerreotype of the poet

Emily Dickinson - circa age 17, daguerreotype of the poet

Introduction and Text of "Success is counted sweetest"

Emily Dickinson's "Success is counted sweetest" is dramatized in three riming stanzas, ABCB, a traditional form often employed by this unique poet. The theme of this masterpiece asserts that success is more important to those who have never tasted that commodity, yet not so much to those who have. Losers and winners of the world then seem to go about in differing states of emotion.

Dickinsonian speakers often make statements that seem absurd but with due reflection by the reader or listener, the perfect sense of those statements comes to light. Emily’s minimalist style often makes her reports seem opaque, but again as her ellipses begin to fill in with repeated close reading, the beauty and honesty of her message becomes glowingly apparent.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Success is counted sweetest

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated — dying —
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

Reading of "Success is counted sweetest"

Emily Dickinson - Commemorative Stamp

Emily Dickinson - Commemorative Stamp

Commentary

The Dickinsonian speaker is once again observing life through her unique lens. Emily Dickinson often constructed strange worlds where things often turned out to be exactly as she bizarrely describes them.

First Stanza: The Unsuccessful Hungering

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

The first stanza opens with the speaker declaring that it is only those who have never been successful that possess the notion that success is always so great or is the "sweetest" state of awareness.

The unsuccessful, it seems, remain the ones who actually hunger most after success. Once the success has been achieved, the goal of achieving success just fades away. In order to comprehend the workings of a desire, one has to possess that desire.

Comprehending a "nectar" requires that the taster possess a painfully pressing need to acquire it; a simple fading wish is not enough. The desired object must appear to the one who desires it with great intensity.

From classical mythology, the term "nectar" represents the drink given by the gods to foster life. The object sought must therefore be one of intense desirability and interest to the seeker. The sweetness of nectar can be alluring to almost anyone, but it becomes especially important to the one who has sought after it but never tasted it.

Second Stanza: A Field of Victory

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

The second stanza features the speaker portraying some field of victory as one might encounter in a field game like football, soccer, or hockey. While none of these games enjoyed the wide popularity that they do today, the world of team sports was taking root in American during the early 1800s:

Although football games between colleges would not be organized formally until the 1860s, a primitive rugbylike version of the sport gained popularity and served as an initiation rite for freshmen at Harvard beginning in the 1820s.

Emily Dickinson likely attended sporting events during her school years from which she could divine the sentiment expressed by the winners and losers of the games she witnessed.

Thus, in this poem, her speaker avers that none of the winners of today’s event can delineate what true victory is. That sense of awareness, according to this speaker, belongs only to the losers.

According to Thomas H. Johnson, the editor who returned Dickinson’s poems to their original forms, the earliest known manuscript of this poem is from 1859. Thus remarks such as the following from eNotes cannot be accurate:

In this case, she is talking about the idea of "victory" specifically in battle, which it can be assumed is in reference to the victory of the Northern Army in the Civil War.

The winning "purple Host" cannot refer to a Civil War battle since Dickinson actually wrote this poem in 1859–two years before the Civil War began. And the North did not see "victory" over the South until 1865.

The speaker’s use of "purple Host" demonstrates that Dickinson is instituting her own symbolism—and not merely referring to royalty as the color purpose is often employed. She used the color purple in two other poems. In the following short verse written circa 1863, the speaker enlightens her listeners regarding the two-fold nature of "Purple":

Purple – is fashionable twice –
This season of the year,
And when a soul perceives itself
To be an Emperor.

In the following poem written circa 1864, which sports a faux title, "Purple –," the speaker offers an extended definition of the term. The common traditional symbol of the color related to royalty exists, but this important hue is much more than that, according to this speaker.

Purple –

The Color of a Queen, is this –
The Color of a Sun
At setting – this and Amber –
Beryl – and this, at Noon –

And when at night – Auroran widths
Fling suddenly on men –
'Tis this – and Witchcraft – nature keeps
A Rank – for Iodine –

Thus, after introducing the phrase "purple Host" in 1859, the speaker expanded on the importance of that color in two later poems, establishing her own creative symbology designating the color as representing anything superior to anything ordinary.

Therefore, "purple Host" in "Success is counted sweetest," the speaker is simply referring to the winning team whose members all took the winning flag in that day’s event.

Third Stanza: The Clear Comprehension of Loss

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden earn
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

The beginning of the second stanza featured the victors not comprehending their victory, and the final stanza completes the reasoning behind that claim. The defeated comprehend very clearly what they have lost. They understand their lot far better than the winners understand theirs.

By exaggerating the condition of the loser, calling them the "dying," the speaker merely refers to the suffering they endure because of their defeat. It is likely that terms such defeat and dying account for the misinterpretation as a war poem. The losers' "forbidden ear" will hear quite clearly the adulation given the winners, and that state of affairs will account for their intense suffering and deep desire to win the next time they engage in the endeavor.

While the winners will merely bask in the glow of their victory, the losers will feel deeply that the success that eluded them must be the sweetest nectar they can imagine. They can only imagine it, for when they hear "distant strains of triumph," they ache that those strains are not for them.

Sources

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on June 26, 2016:

Thank you, Stella. Dickinson wrote so many fine poems. Glad you like my commentary about this one. Have a blessed day!

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on June 25, 2016:

Thank you, I loved this and it is really explained so good. I missed alot in life but this is great. Stella

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