Success is Counted Sweetest by Emily Dickinson

In her poem “Success is Counted Sweetest,” published in 1864, Emily Dickinson uses great images of a winning army and a dying soldier to illustrate that only those who have experienced defeat can understand and acknowledge the real value of success, and people require privation to fully appreciate something.

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!

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Analysis of Dickinson’s “Success is Counted Sweetest”

Emily Dickinson’s lyric poem, “Success is Counted Sweetest” was published anonymously in 1864. Through the poem, Dickinson illustrates that once a person has truly lost, they can appreciate success.

The tile of the poem conveys how somebody can truly feel success. Normally when somebody is considered an underdog, their success is greater and more powerful to experience, because they really know how it feels to be on the losing side.

The first stanza conveys that in order to achieve success, people need to understand how it feels to not succeed. The second stanza talks about soldiers who have won a war, yet still do not understand what success is. The third stanza describes a dying warrior on the losing side who can hear the winning soldiers celebrating.

In the first stanza, the speaker expresses that in order to fully and truly understand victory, one must know how it feels to fail. It will create humility and appreciation for the success that is earned. The second stanza explains that in spite of technically having the victory, the winning soldiers do not understand the meaning of success because they have not experienced failure. Finally, in the third stanza, the speaker uses the dying soldier as an example of somebody who has failed, yet understands what it truly feels like to win. Dickinson emphasizes on how the fallen soldier understands and appreciates the value of success more than the victorious soldiers, because he has been defeated. He hears them celebrating their victory and it makes him want it more.

The theme of the poem is that success is valued most by those who have failed. The speaker uses the dying soldier as someone who longed for success but could not grasp it. When people truly desire something and cannot retrieve it, their desire for it becomes greater.  Dickinson communicates the idea that failure is a motivation to succeed.

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