Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

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Success is counted sweetest

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Emily Dickinson's poem "Success is counted sweetest."

Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Success is counted sweetest | Summary



This three-stanza poem in ballad meter deviates from the typical iambic tetrameter in the odd-numbered lines (with the exception of the fifth). All lines that would normally be in iambic tetrameter (the first and third lines of each stanza) instead consist of three iambic feet plus an extra unstressed syllable. A variety of hymn meter, this pattern is sometimes known as "Sevens and Sixes."

The poem asserts that success is most appreciated and best understood not by those who have achieved it but by those who have failed to do so. One best understands the sweetness of success when one has failed. In the second stanza the speaker introduces the analogy of war to suggest victors in battle cannot understand the notion of success as well as those who have been defeated. On the abandoned battlefield the lone soldier "defeated—dying" hears the sounds of "triumph" denied to him as one who has failed and feels a loss more significant than the victory is to those who have won.


This is a definition poem in that true understanding of the meaning of success depends on one's perspective, or, in this case, something is more desired or valuable to those who don't have it than to those who do. The notion that understanding or knowledge is relative to one's position in life is a common theme in Dickinson's poetry.

Her use of alliteration in the first two lines highlights the subject success. The use of the word nectar as the direct object of comprehend is clearly a poetic choice: How can anyone understand a beverage? Dickinson uses this unusual word choice to emphasize the extreme sweetness of success to those who fail. Nectar is significant because it is the sweetest, most desired drink in all of literature. Indeed, it is what the Greek gods imbibe to preserve their immortality.

The second and third stanzas illustrate the concept established in the first. In these stanzas Dickinson uses a conceit and diction that refer to a battlefield. The "purple Host" (royal army) that "took the Flag" (won the battle) cannot understand "Victory" as well as the dying soldier on whose ear "the distant strains" or sounds of victory are painfully clear. Their celebration is in the moment, whereas the soldier's defeat seems eternal.

By ending five of the lines on unstressed syllables instead of the usual stressed syllables, Dickinson makes them appear to lose energy at the end, reflecting the sense of defeat throughout the poem. Furthermore, the slant rhyme of "dying/triumph" in the third stanza highlights the contrast between the experience of the defeated soldier and those who have won the battle.

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