Dickinson Week Day Six: “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!


The first stanza here, starkly denotes that the person that best knows the measure and value of success is the person who is yet to experience it. Dickinson’s recognition of the drinking of ‘nectar’ as something that only the ‘sorest’ can understand basically indicates that (with ‘nectar’ being recognised in mythology as the drink of the gods that enabled them to revel in immortality) one has to be in the infinite depths of despair to truly appreciate the virtues of positivity – in this case specifically, success. In short, Dickinson primarily outlines that those who succeed never truly appreciate it—it is only those who fail, or who lack something, that can truly appreciate how wonderful it would be if they did succeed.

Dickinson extends the metaphor defined in the first stanza and continues it across the rest of the poem. She alludes to the image of a battlefield, denoting that those soldiers ‘who  took the flag’ will not be able to comprehend the true value of their success as their losing counterparts will recognise it. Dickinson then goes on to depict the despair of the losing side in her final stanza, denoting ‘he’ (who is perhaps selected as a synecdoche for the entire losing side of an army in war ) as ‘dying’ as they hear the ‘triumph’ of the winning side. The final stanza is fundamentally heartbreaking, in the sense that it further highlights that success can only ever be appreciated by those who have never experienced it, suggesting that as soon as we experience success we will never again place the same value upon it; it is now no longer the pinnacle of achievement and is ultimately an anti-climax to those who are regular to it.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)


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