By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Success Is Counted Sweetest’ is not as famous as some of Emily Dickinson’s other poems, but she was a prolific poet, and this one is well worth reading. Indeed, it has a peculiar place in Dickinson’s oeuvre, being one of just seven poems which were published during her lifetime. (It’s not quite true that Dickinson was entirely unknown as a poet while she was alive, although it’s certainly true that she was better known as a gardener than as a poet during her own lifetime.)
As is often the case with an Emily Dickinson poem, the language and imagery require a bit of careful analysis and unpicking. Before we offer some words of commentary, here is the poem:
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 meaning of this poem is actually fairly straightforward, but as so often with Emily Dickinson, the metaphors and analogies she chooses to illustrate the poem’s ‘message’ are perhaps a little less so. So first, a summary: ‘Success is counted sweetest’, we are told, by those who never succeed. In other words, the idea of success is most desired by those who never attain it.
Think of fame or riches as examples of ‘success’ in contemporary life: many people who get them realise they don’t provide constant happiness, and aren’t as ‘sweet’ as they appeared when they were out of reach and we were still striving for them. (Though having enough money in the bank to pay the bills doesn’t hurt.)
Dickinson then uses the example of ‘nectar’, building on the idea of sweetness she began the poem with. Bees go in search of nectar so they can make honey, and Dickinson suggests that those who crave the sweet substance understand it best: in other words, we appreciate the value of something only when we lack it.
To offer a slightly less grand analogy of our own, anyone who has shopped while hungry, or imagined a nice cold drink on a hot day, knows that this is true. We are creatures of instinct: as soon as we have something, we cease to want it, and our relationship to it changes. The fact that in English, the word ‘want’ is used to mean both a desire for something and a lack of something reminds us of how aware we are of this.
In the second and third stanzas of her poem, Dickinson turns to the example of war and contemplates victory (another kind of ‘success’) versus defeat: those who are victorious in battle cannot fully comprehend how important it was to win, whereas those who are defeated and dying on the battlefield know all too well the price of failing to ‘succeed’.
Dickinson turns from rather trivial or light-hearted examples in that first stanza (we might read ‘nectar’ not as a literal reference to bees but as a metaphor for wine, that sweet ‘nectar’ which we humans enjoy for its taste and scent) to altogether more weighty and momentous matters for the rest of the poem.
‘Success Is Counted Sweetest’ is a poem about how those who lack something desire something the most keenly; but this would be a platitude, if it weren’t for the added twist Emily Dickinson gives this idea – namely, that, paradoxically, those who haven’t experienced something understand it the best. As Victor Hugo put it, ‘Need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal.’
About Emily Dickinson
Perhaps no other poet has attained such a high reputation after their death that was unknown to them during their lifetime. Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson lived her whole life within the few miles around her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. She never married, despite several romantic correspondences, and was better-known as a gardener than as a poet while she was alive.
Nevertheless, it’s not quite true (as it’s sometimes alleged) that none of Dickinson’s poems was published during her own lifetime. A handful – fewer than a dozen of some 1,800 poems she wrote in total – appeared in an 1864 anthology, Drum Beat, published to raise money for Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War. But it was four years after her death, in 1890, that a book of her poetry would appear before the American public for the first time and her posthumous career would begin to take off.
Dickinson collected around eight hundred of her poems into little manuscript books which she lovingly put together without telling anyone. Her poetry is instantly recognisable for her idiosyncratic use of dashes in place of other forms of punctuation. She frequently uses the four-line stanza (or quatrain), and, unusually for a nineteenth-century poet, utilises pararhyme or half-rhyme as often as full rhyme. The epitaph on Emily Dickinson’s gravestone, composed by the poet herself, features just two words: ‘called back’.