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The Importance of Being Mortal: On Emily Dickinson’s "Success Is Counted Sweetest"

Success Is Counted Sweetest…
Emily Dickinson

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 to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory,

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break, agonized and clear.

Commentary:

If we ever appreciate and have success, the first stanza seems to say, it will be because something nearly impossible has happened. How does one “comprehend a nectar?” Nectar was what the Olympians drank. Certainly those gods had mastery of the world – mastery of Reason – even if they acted like spoiled children. But did they “comprehend” what they had? No – they just drank the nectar, that’s all. We mere mortals have “sorest need,” and thus have an ability, perhaps, to appreciate the power the gods have. But if we ever get such power, we will not appreciate it, it seems.

The bright color of the nectar (I think of the nectar as orange for some reason, i.e. “nectarine”) is perhaps the one image of the first stanza. It is replaced in the second with that of “purple host.” I would assume “purple host” is there to make us think of an army of angels, marching to victory against the legions of Hell, empowered all the more by Christ’s sacrifice. Not even those angels, though, understand success. After all, they have it.

The bright/dark contrast may invoke a day/night metaphor. Neither the light of the sun nor the distance of the stars nor the whole of Time is adequate for defining success. And Greek gods and Christian angels cannot tell the definition exactly either: they may have a part of it, but that means those who will have & appreciate success will give the clearest definition.

Man, in contrast to the gods and angels spoken of above, is perpetually defeated by Death. To be anything other than mortal would disqualify one from being human. It is this fundamental lack of success that allows him to hear what he is not a part of: agonized but clear sounds of success. Man can appreciate success, but he does not do it through Reason or a trust in the end of Time. He does so through knowing he is going to die, and knowing that there are battles between gods and angels he is powerless to affect.

If we go back to the first two lines now, we realize what the poet is up to: We appreciate success because we, as mortals, define what success is. In a larger sense, we are unsuccessful – we have to die. In the largest sense, we are the only ones who could ever be successful.

3 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed your interpretation on this poem. I had a hard time finding a “critique” of this poem, which is what I needed for a research paper, until I found yours. We share similar beliefs in what this poem was saying, but your insight added a lot to my personal interpretation as well. It usually takes a lot for me to truly understand poetry, however this poem came a little more easily to me and your blog helped that much more. Thank You.

  2. Thanks so much! Feel free to keep in touch!

  3. This was the poem my high school teacher used to introduce us to poetry in 9th grade. Ever since then i’ve had a soft spot or it, and its magnificent writer.As always good commentary.

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