‘Victory comes late’ by Emily Dickinson is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within one block of text. There is no standard pattern of rhyme or rhythm in the poem. It is written in blank verse, a style very common within Dickinson’s works.
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Summary of Victory comes late
The poem begins with the speaker telling of the death of someone who “Victory,” or a life-saving liquid, comes too late. In the text, their lips are too frozen to receive the medicine or water that would’ve saved them. This is mimicked in later lines as the speaker describes how God’s “table” is too high for human beings to reach.
There is no way for a human to get to a level in which they can understand God and his choices. Even if they did, they would strangle like a robin eating meat meant for an eagle.
Dickinson’s Dashes and Capitalization
Scholars are divided over what this intermittent punctuation could mean. But in this case, the dashes are easily read as moments in which the speaker was overwhelmed, or thinking hard before proceeding. The pauses represent a desire to create drama and tension in the text. It is also a way for the reader, speaker, and even Dickinson herself, to gather thoughts together before moving on to the next line.
One should also consider the use of capitalization in these lines. This is another technique that Dickinson is known for, and which causes confusion among students and scholars alike. There is no single definitive reason why Dickinson capitalized on the words she did. Often, the words she chose were the most prominent of the lines, the ones that were the most evocative and meaningful. This appears to be the case in ‘Victory comes late’ as well.
Enjambment in Victory comes late
Enjambment is the most common poetic technique used in ‘Victory comes late.’ It occurs in almost every line, with and without dashes. It happens when a line cuts off the speaker’s thought before a natural stopping point. This can be done, as with this poem, to create drama, or it could be used to speed up or slow down one’s progress while reading. These moments, such as that which occurs between lines three and four, work together with the dashes. They increase the seriousness of the text as Dickinson calls out God for his reluctance to adequately commune with humanity.
Analysis of Victory comes late
Victory comes late –
And is held low to freezing lips –
Too rapt with frost
To take it –
In the first lines of ‘Victory comes late’ the speaker begins by utilizing the phrase that was later utilized as the title, as was the case with the majority of Dickinson’s poems. It also acts as a good summary of the main theme of the text, that of providence just beyond one’s reach.
In the first lines, the speaker describes a scene in which a person is freezing to death. There are only a few details, but they are not important. What is, is the fact that finally something, a drink of some kind, is “held low to freezing lips.” Unfortunately, though, the lips are,
Too rapt with frost
To take it—
The fact that there are so many dashes employed in ‘Victory comes late,’ even by Dickinson’s standard, shows the drama that she sought to convey through syntax. A reader is forced to take pauses after almost every line. This is furthered by the use of enjambment, as described in the introduction.
The use of the word “rapt” in these lines is an interesting one. Dickinson is using it to describe the way this person’s slips were consumed by frost, unable to move or accept the liquid, perhaps already dead. But the word is usually connected with something pleasurable, and in the past, with being carried away to heaven. This fits in perfectly with the rest of the poem. This person is now dead and on their way to the next life. The twist of the situation comes from the fact that the speaker believes that it was God’s fault.
How sweet it would have tasted –
Just a Drop –
Was God so economical?
His Table’s spread too high for Us –
In the fifth line, the speaker continues to describe the liquid this person might’ve drunk. At this point, it takes on different meanings, the physical one, but it also speaks to a higher understanding or closeness to God. The speaker wants to know why God is so “economical.” Why can’t he give humanity what it needs, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
It would’ve been “sweet” to know something of God and Heaven, or even have one’s doubts assuaged before death. It is widely known that Dickinson herself had trouble with her faith, and often wrote about it within her poetry. This has led many to assume she is the speaker of the text, directly challenging God and his choices. It is clear through the phrase,
Was God so economical?
that Dickinson, or at least this speaker she was channeling, is frustrated with the way the world works. This person is seeking answers and not finding any.
In the final line, the speaker is at once angry and resigned to human fate. The table that God sits at is “too high for Us” who live on earth. There is no way for a human being to reach God’s table and learn something of him.
Unless We dine on tiptoe –
Crumbs – fit such little mouths –
Cherries – suit Robbins –
The Eagle’s Golden Breakfast strangles – Them –
God keep His Oath to Sparrows –
Who of little Love – know how to starve –
In the next lines of ‘Victory comes late’ the speaker describes how if humanity wants to get close to God they have to “dine on tiptoe,” and eat the small crumbs that come off the tables. These are equivalent to the drops of water that come too late. They “fit such little mouths” like cherries for robins.
If the robin, a small bird, were to try to eat the “Eagle’s Golden Breakfast” then it would strangle. This kind of food, and at such a large quantity would not be beneficial in the end.
In the last lines, the speaker compares the human race to sparrows. Both know hunger, but sparrows “know how to starve.” They are used to it and do not have the persistent worry the plagues the human race. That being said, Dickinson does not look down on humanity for seeking, she was too. It is God’s reluctance to share that she’s condemning.