Saturday, December 9, 2017

Emily Dickinson: "Success is counted sweetest"

No. 67

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!

-- Emily Dickinson --
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

For Emily Dickinson, this seems like a fairly straightforward poem.   Only those who have never won can really appreciate victory.   But, still, I wonder.  How could one who has never experienced victory, realistically understand or comprehend it? The more I consider this poem, the more perplexed I become.

As usual, I must ask if I am  missing something here in this poem by Dickinson.


  1. Fred, I think this poem was written in 1859, and that invalidates my first "explications": a poem about the civil war. So, if it is not about the war, what is left. Well, when I read it again (and again), I think the poem is (might be) specifically about someone's death and more generally about the seductive promise (Victory) of life-after-death. However, if I read the poem at some other time, I am likely to have a different "explication." Such is often the problem for me with Emily Dickinson's poems.

    1. R.T., I saw it as more of a generic or universal statement, but, as you point out, it could result from a specific incident which led to a broader, more inclusive observation.

      As for changing explications, well, when I first read the poem, I thought I understood it (although I didn't necessarily agree with it). However, subsequent readings have only confused me.

      Perhaps the best way to read ED is to ignore the common wisdom and stay with one's first impressions (which are usually looked down upon as faulty).

    2. Fred, because she wrote so many poems without sharing them, I sometimes wonder about the ethics of reading the poems not published or shared during her lifetime. Isn’t it a bit like reading someone’s diary? I’m just thinking aloud here.

    3. R.T., did she leave orders to destroy them? I had always heard that she gave up trying to get them published, which tells me she would be very gratified today to see their reception.

      Now, there's always Kafka to talk about. I understand that he did give orders that all his writings were to be destroyed, which his friend obviously did not do.

    4. Fred, I don’t know her intentions. I was just wondering about the mystery of 7 published, dozens shared with family and a Higginson, and more than 1700 unpublished. Hmmm.

    5. R.T., I don't know where you are going with this.

    6. Going no where but to ponder the ethics of reading unpublished texts.

    7. R.T., OK. I don't see the problem, though.

  2. agree with RT as to the timing... but i also can see a discussion of time, pov, and a comparison of how being goal oriented can be self defeating: if goals, when attained, are meaningless, how does that effect our vision of the future...?

  3. I think that what we do not have, is in some ways, is a much sweeter then what we do have. When n one is defeated, success will look very differently from the way that the victor sees it.

  4. Mudpuddle and Brian, interesting and intriguing comments. I hadn't looked at all at the winner, just the loser, but I think you are on to something.

    Actually we are all losers, until we win or achieve our goal. Then we become a winner. Now, is the exhilaration of winning at the same level as what we anticipated it would be prior to winning?

    I have often heard there's a letdown after achieving a goal one has struggled to achieve. This letdown of course would not be experienced by those who didn't win.

    I wonder if that's what ED is referring to in the poem?

  5. Forgive my mind. When you use exhilaration, letdown, and ED in the same comment, my mind goes into indelicate territory. The poet would be upset with me. I hope you aren’t upset.

    1. R.T., Chuckle. . . go right ahead "into indelicate territory." A touch of indelicacy always adds flavor to the endeavour.