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23 October 2011

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!
                                               - F 112 (1859)  67

Widely anthologized, the poem reflects a common human experience: those who stand outside the winner’s circle or the corporate boardroom or prestigious cultural venues have a longing for it that surpasses the satisfaction of those  who have attained it. Those who enjoy wine whenever they please are never going to “comprehend” the lovely flavors and complexity of their “nectar” as would someone hungry, tired, and miserable. D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers tells his miserably hungry servant when all they had to eat was a vile sort of soup, "Appetite is the best sauce."  (This is a line I find myself needing to use a lot.)  And here is Solomon on the topic in Proverbs Ch. 31: 4-7 (a passage infamously neglected in  most churches...):
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink: Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
When this poem was written, the Civil War 
was only a few years away
The poem's second stanza takes us to the battlefield where the the defeated are not only dying but “agonized” and humiliated as well.  It's not a very cheerful poem and it certainly contains none of the Eastern or Stoic philosophying that life is better when lived without attachment to material goods or status or position. 
   I think, though, that Dickinson is taking an overt Christian approach. She means us to read the battlefield  with its purple Host and trumpets of triumph as a metaphor for heaven vs. hell. Those who lose a chance for heaven suffer a double whammy: both the doom of hell and the tantalizing sounds of heavenly – and eternally out-of-reach – triumph.

The poem was one of the few Dickinson submitted for publication. 


  1. Do you know how many poems were published during her lifetime? Depending on the resource, I've read that she published from four to seven... Which is the real number? Which ones, apart from 'Success...' were the chosen?

  2. There are, maddeningly, different accounts. Here is a list from a couple of sources:

    "Nobody knows this little rose" – 1858, Springfield Republican
    "I taste a liquor never brewed" – 1861, Springfield Republican
    "Some keep the Sabbath going to church" - 1864, published by a relative, Charles Sweetser, in The Round Table.
    "Safe in their alabaster Chambers" – Springfield Republican
    "Blazing in gold, and quenching in purple" – 1864, Springfield Republican
    "These are the days when Birds come back" DRUM BEAT, 1864
    "Flowers - Well - if anybody" – DRUM BEAT, 1864
    "A narrow fellow in the grass" – 1866, Springfield Republican
    "Success is counted sweetest" – 1878, A Masque of Poets

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    1. "There is no firm evidence that Dickinson sanctioned the appearance of any of the ten poems published in her lifetime" (Habegger, A. 2001. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books. Footnote 108, Page 800. Kindle Edition.)

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  5. ED met Susan Gilbert in 1848 when they were 17 (both born December 1830). By the early 50s they shared an intellectual and emotional intimacy ED had never known before. In 1854, when Susan took a teaching job in Baltimore, ED’s frequent letters spoke of loneliness, but responses were few and intermittent. In hopes of keeping Susan close, ED encouraged a budding romance between her brother Austin and Sue, and in July 1856 they married. Austin’s father gave him a partnership in his law firm and built him a new house, “Evergreens”, next door to the old Dickinsons’ “Homestead” where ED’s second-floor bedroom window looked west, toward Evergreens. Predictably, those shared hours of intimacy between Susan and ED came full stop. While Susan played her role as a 19th century wife, ED wrote poems, which she often sent to Sue in hopes of rekindling some semblance of their former relationship.

    Susan and Austin enjoyed hosting visitors like Samuel Bowles, editor of New England’s premier progressive newspaper, and holding soirées for Amherst society to meet dignitaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bret Harte, and abolitionist Wendell Phillips. ED often was not invited to these events and sometimes not informed even when Bowles, by now ED’s friend, was coming for a visit. Biographer Alfred Habegger paints the picture: “When [Bowles] showed up at the Dickinson compound, it was the Evergreens he headed for, not the Homestead. Only after his arrival—and then not invariably—did Sue step next door and announce him.” (‘My Wars Are Laid Away in Books’, Page 461, Kindle edition, 2001).

    By 1859, when ED composed ‘Success is counted sweetest’, she felt rejected, the loser in a battle with Austin for Sue’s affection. ED penciled the first copy of the poem and sent it to Sue because she knew her erstwhile friend would understand the depth of the poet’s feelings of loss:

    Success is counted sweetest by those who try to fill their deepest needs but constantly lose. To truly understand how that feels you must imagine yourself in the loser’s shoes. Not one of the distinguished guests attending today’s soirée can fully comprehend how lucky they are to be among the invited because they have never lost a battle in life, they have never felt forbidden to enjoy feeling victory or had to listen to the distant but painfully clear revelries of winners in life.