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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