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Success Is Counted Sweetest
A Poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Narration and Tone
Themes
Meter
Rhyme Scheme
Figures of Speech
Text With Comments
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography
Another Dickinson Poem
Index of Study Guides
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2003
Revised in 2010.
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Type of Work and Year of Publication

.......Emily Dickinson's "Success Is Counted Sweetest" is a three-stanza lyric poem written in 1859. Author Helen Hunt Jackson, with whom Dickinson corresponded, published the poem in 1878 in a collection, A Masque of Poets.
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Success Is Counted Sweetest
By Emily Dickinson

1
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Comments, Stanza 1

This stanza establishes the theme: that the person who best understands the meaning of success is the person who fails. This quatrain can stand alone as a completed observation. 

nectar: In Greek mythology, nectar was the drink of the gods, conferring on them immortality. In common usage, a nectar is any delectable drink or, figuratively, any uplifting experience. 



2
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition 
So clear of Victory

Comments, Stanza 2

This stanza introduces military imagery: purple Host (army) and took the Flag (captured the flag, signifying victory), but it cannot stand alone as a completed observation. Rather, it requires the third stanza to complete its meaning. 

purple: (1) Bloodstained; (2) purple attire, emblematic of high rank



3
As he defeated—dying—
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strain of triumph
Burst agonized and clear.

Comments, Stanza 3

The third stanza completes the second, saying that a defeated soldier, dying, fully comprehends the meaning of victory when he hears the enemy celebrating.
 

Point of View and Tone 

.......The poem uses third-person point of view, in which the speaker (narrator) observes a battle and concludes that only the defeated warrior, hearing the enemy's noisy victory celebration, completely understands success. The tone is unemotional and impersonal; the speaker is reporting and interpreting what she sees but refrains from expressing sympathy or compassion.

Themes

Only failures fully understand the meaning of success. Dickinson announces this theme in the first two lines: "Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed." 
Appreciating a boon requires privation. For example, a poor man who wins the lottery better appreciates his windfall than a millionaire executive who receives a six-figure bonus. The poet enunciates this theme when she says, "To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need." 

Meter

.......The meter consists of iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. Some of the lines contain a catalectic (incomplete) foot. Here is how the first five lines appear when broken into metric feet. 

.......1..................2...................3............4 (incomplete foot)
Suc CESS..|..is COUNT..|..ed SWEET..|..est......................................................iambic tetrameter

.......1..................2...................3...........
By THOSE..|..who NE'ER..|..suc CEED...............................................................iambic trimeter

......1................2...............3.........4 (incomplete foot)
To COM..|..pre HEND..|..a NEC..|..tar..................................................................iambic tetrameter

.....1..............2...............3...........
Re QUI..|..res.SOR.|..est NEED....Note: "Requires" is pronounced as three syllables..............iambic trimeter

......1..............2..............3..............4
Not ONE..|..of ALL..|..the PUR..|..ple Host...........................................................iambic tetrameter
Rhyme Scheme

.......The rhyme scheme is abcbthat is, in each stanza the last syllable of the second line rhymes with the last syllable of the fourth line.
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Figures of Speech

.......Paradox is the controlling figure of speech in the poem. It expresses the main theme: The person best qualified to evaluate the impact of success is the vanquished rather than the triumphant. Implicit in this paradoxical observation is that it can apply to anyone: the failed author, the defeated boxer, the election loser, the rejected job applicant, the bankrupt businessman. 
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

Success is counted sweetest (line 1)

Not one of all the purple.Host
Who took the Flag today (lines 5-6)

As he defeated—dying— (line 9)

Paradox
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed. (lines 1-2)
Syncope
Ne'er (line 2) is an example of syncope (SINK uh pe), the omission of letters from the middle of a word.

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Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Write a short account about an incident from your own life that demonstrated the truth of "To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need."
2. Is it possible to fail in victory and succeed in defeat?
3. People measure success by the money they make, the power they wield, the admiration they receive, the satisfaction they derive from performing a task, and so on. Write an essay that explains your definition of success. Use plenty of examples to make your point.
4. Comment on the effect of the word distant in the last stanza.
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