Success is counted sweetest

Emily Dickinson

‘Success is counted sweetest’ by Emily Dickinson is a thoughtful poem about success. It emphasizes the fact that one must lose something in order to truly appreciate it.


Emily Dickinson

Nationality: American

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Those with little success value it the most

Speaker: Someone considering success

Emotions Evoked: Compassion

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

Emily Dickinson considers the nature of success in this highly relatable poem.

‘Success is counted sweetest’ is a three-stanza poem that addresses the connection of “need” and “triumph.” Essentially, only in experiencing that “need” can a person truly appreciate the best things in life. The difference between the stanzas shows the softness of finding goodness after a “need” and the harshness of losing what you “need” for “victory.”

This conflict identifies variation in that a person can be in a situation where happiness exists because of the change, or “agon[y]” can be present because the good thing happens only because of pure sacrifice. Regardless, it is this juxtaposition of “need” and “triumph” that make the parallel strong enough to solidify the true meaning of “[s]uccess” and “victory” in a person’s mind.

Success is counted sweetest
Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetestBy those who ne'er succeed.To comprehend a nectarRequires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple HostWho took the Flag todayCan tell the definitionSo clear of victory

As he defeated – dying –On whose forbidden earThe distant strains of triumphBurst agonized and clear!
Success is counted sweetest by Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetest Analysis

First Stanza

Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne’er succeed.

To comprehend a nectar

Requires sorest need.

The scene is set in this first stanza to dive into the core elements of ‘Success is counted sweetest’—that, basically, you must fail to have something in order to truly understand its worth. Specifically for this stanza, only someone who has “ne’er succeed[ed]” will “count” “success” at the “sweetest” level, and only through “need” can a person “comprehend a nectar.”

There is rationalization in this concept in that people who have things they “need” without question may often take those things for granted, which would indicate that they do not appreciate those elements on a higher level. This is rational if a person considers something as simple as water. If all we need to do is open a bottle or turn a faucet to get it, we could assume it will be accessible. If a person were lost in a desert, however, that same water would be escalated in worth so that it would potentially be at its “sweetest” value.

The alliteration happening in the first two lines of ‘Success is counted sweetest’ show these discussed topics to be strong ideas, even though the sound being repeated is a soft “s” through “Success,” “sweetest,” and “succeed.” What this indicates is that this is an ongoing situation, like the “s” sound keeps recurring, but it is not an automatic harsh trait from a person. If it were, perhaps a harder sound would be repeating, like a cutting “c” or a blunt “b.” Here, though, the gentle nature of “s” makes the human nature to never truly value something until experiencing “sorest need” feel like a commonality that is not necessarily a fault. Rather, it is only a trait we have yet to escape.

For the last two lines of this stanza, “nectar” is being used to describe the situation. This connects to the earlier lines of the stanza since “nectar” is “sweet,” but it is also worth noting that “nectar” was mythologically connected to Roman and Greek deities. By bringing in a food that is connected to such a high idea of existence, Dickinson has provided something that should automatically be amazing because it is so out of reach, but still, a person will only “comprehend” that greatness if in “sorest need.” This indicates that no matter how grand the natural element or object, a person will only appreciate it to its fullest if they drastically “need” it.

As well, the ABCB rhyme scheme of ‘Success is counted sweetest’ grounds these concepts in an expected pattern that mimics how common these ideas feel to Dickinson. A person, to her, will not appreciate something as grand as “nectar” without “need[ing]” it, and she can anticipate that concept as faithfully as a person can expect a B line to follow an A or C one.

Second Stanza

Not one of all the purple Host

Who took the Flag today

Can tell the definition

So clear of victory

By referencing “the purple Host” in this stanza of ‘Success is counted sweetest’, Dickinson has brought royalty into the equation since “purple” was historically a word that was connected to the rich and the royal. Given that these in “purple” are the ones who “took the Flag today,” it seems fitting to assume that this is royalty whose army has won a battle.

Note, as well, that other than the beginnings of lines, the only two capitalized words in this stanza are the ones connected to that royalty and their country—“Host” and “Flag.” What this indicates is that these are the beings who stand over the situation, whereas the combatting soldiers are treated as somewhat lowlier. This establishes a level of importance to stature, no doubt, but Dickinson states that this “Host[‘s]” elevation regarding the physical circumstance makes it so “[n]ot one of” them “[c]an tell the definition” “of victory.”

Even though they are the ones who claimed “the Flag,” they do not understand the significance of what the ongoing struggle for it meant. In this, they cannot truly appreciate the “victory”—they cannot even “tell the definition” of it—so they will never fully appreciate the feeling of achievement when the battle is over.

Worth noting as well is that the ABCB rhyme scheme is somewhat diminished since “today” and “victory” only rhyme if you pronounce one of them in a deliberate way. What this variation could hint is that the “Host” do know of “victory” in a way that is relatable, but it is still an imperfect representation because they are so removed from the devastation. This is reflected in the imperfect rhymes of “today” and “victory” in that they are relatable, but still not in perfect sync with one another.

Third Stanza

As he defeated – dying –

On whose forbidden ear

The distant strains of triumph

Burst agonized and clear!

In the third stanza of ‘Success is counted sweetest’, the person who understands the battle “victory” in a “clear” fashion, according to this stanza, is the “dying” warrior who gave his life for the concept. The irony is that this “victory” is labeled as “defeat,” to the point that hearing “distant strains of triumph” is noted as “forbidden” and “agonized.” This irony is deeply ingrained in the work since “the purple Host” seems to be in good spirits and uplifted, while the person who fought for that win is brushed aside so much that he is not only unacknowledged in the end, but not intended to hear of the “victory” he is “dying” for.

This makes the understanding of what “victory” means a negative thing, in a way. Only by truly suffering for it, overall, is the full effect of the sensation experienced. In this, sacrifice and “victory” go hand-in-hand, so much that one might find it hard to envy the person who truly grasps “victory” as it does not necessarily seem worth its price.

Notice, though, that the ABCB rhyme scheme is back in full force, representing the fulness of understanding that this soldier has of “victory.” It is “clear” to this person, even though he is physically “distant” from the ones who claim the “victory”—“the purple Host.” He is below them on the social hierarchy and far away from them as his life leaves him, but only in that depraved situation can he understand what “victory” means. This is because he knows the price of the experience—his own life. He knows what that “victory” costs, and that cost is his very existence. This relates to the concept of “need” creating understanding, but this time, it is in giving what a person “need[s]” that the true depths of “[s]uccess” and “victory” are revealed.

This is a harsher circumstance because there is no pleasantness awaiting this person, like someone who was hungry before finding their “nectar.” All that awaits this person is death and harshness. This harshness can be noted in the number of words that begin with a “d” sound in the lines—“defeated,” “dying,” and “distant.” All of these words have a negative connotation, and each shares the same blunt “d” beginning as “death” itself. In this, Dickinson has crafted wording that shows the devastation that awaits someone offering the ultimate sacrifice for someone who cannot fully appreciate the “victory” that the soldier has won.

Essentially, in this situation, the “clear” image of “victory” that this person has is only in sacrifice since the “sounds of triumph” are a “strain” for him as he lies “agonized” and “defeated.” “Success,” then, seems different than “victory” since “[s]uccess” came with finding worth after a time of “need.” In this context, “victory” is losing something that is “need[ed]” without so much as earning credit or inclusion.

No matter the differentiation, however, the concept remains that only those in “need” can truly understand the vastness of gaining something positive, even if that positive thing is earned by a “Host” of people rather than the one who sacrificed. Whether good or bad for the person experiencing the “need,” only through that “need” can the genuine realization of what “triumph” means be grasped.

About Emily Dickinson

Born in Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson is one of the most famous American poets to ever exist. She attended Amherst Academy, and while traditional publication was not common for her works during her lifetime, she did share her poems with family and friends, and even sewed them together in what could be labeled as homemade collections. She lived from 1830 to 1886.

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Connie Smith Poetry Expert
Connie L. Smith spends a decent amount of time with her mind wandering in fictional places. She reads too much, likes to bake, and might forever be sad that she doesn’t have fairy wings. She has her BA from Northern Kentucky University in Speech Communication and History (she doesn’t totally get the connection either), and her MA in English and Creative Writing. In addition, she freelances as a blogger for topics like sewing and running, with a little baking, gift-giving, and gardening having occasionally been thrown in the topic list.

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