Emily Dickinson, “Success is counted sweetest” (Franklin 112)

Let’s try, you and I, to get success. Right now. We’re going to define it, and once we define it, we’ll realize we have a bit more of it than we thought we did. Let’s go get what’s already there.

For myself, I want to be more organized and disciplined. This means writing, studying, and reading regularly, not letting messes pile up, having proper meal times and bed times. It means publishing on a regular basis. I want to model the behavior I want to see in others, so reaching out and being kind are priorities. And that, in turn, means speaking out—I don’t want to hear excuses for the unacceptable, I don’t want people who have no concern whatsoever for others dominate our discourse.

I’m sure you’ve got a similar list, and similar sentiments regarding your own progress with each item. You can ask me what I’ve actually been doing, and you’ll hear something like “I just started.” I’ve found it useful to locate my efforts in the “pre-planning” stage of action. I can employ professional-sounding terminology for professional-sounding excuses. I do hope you’re making more progress than I am; maybe angry jealousy will get me moving.

Strangely enough, this debased vantage of mine might count for something. Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed—the only way to appreciate success is to not have it—in fact, to never have it. Does that include not trying to succeed? If I’m trapped in my own inaction, does that mean I have a picture of success? It would seem not, as the last two stanzas of this use the imagery of battle, of struggle. It looks like at some point, I have to try and fail in order to appreciate success. But let’s take as close a look at this poem as we can:

Success is counted sweetest (Franklin 112)
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 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!

To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need—we were told success is counted sweetest by those who never succeed, but now this proposition becomes more concrete and more specific. Not succeeding involves “sorest need:” you and I desperately need whatever “success” offers. A nectar is natural and may be bright, not just sweet. You could look at it as a gift of the gods, or you could look at it as an everyday occurrence.

Success, then, is a matter of necessity and perspective. This is dizzying, and we’ve only read one stanza. I usually appeal to necessity to cut down on opining. If I know I need to eat, that ends the debate of where I want to go to eat, right? Not quite—I’m still picky, partly because I want a meal, of all things, to be “successful.” I don’t just want satisfaction, I want in some small way to show it off. Now if I can’t eat—if I’m in “sorest need”—the utter indignity is soul-crushing. I can’t even feed myself: what am I worth?

I think Dickinson comes close here to articulating the literal end of American life as we today experience it: we’re afraid to leave the house. All of us, not just the ones saying we’re introverted or speaking openly about anxiety. It’s incredible how we’ve cultivated public spaces that in essence are only extensions of our private lives. There is nothing properly public, and lessons of leadership and proper social engagement are hard to find. So I believe this poem can speak to complete inaction, to paralysis before anything has even happened. It’s a completely arbitrary and imaginary definition of success that is both so necessary and so devastating.

Still. Not one of all the purple Host / Who took the Flag today / Can tell the definition / So clear of victory—in the swirling mass of battle, not one solider for either side really knows what they’re fighting for. Dickinson shifts to martial imagery, implying we’re all soldiers, we’re all trying. This does not seem to square with my thought that her poem can speak to complete inaction. However, a not insignificant part of my dissertation was dwelling on Xenophon’s Socrates loudly proclaiming to an elected general that all men go on campaign because they desire happiness. If something about telling people to kill or be killed in order to achieve happiness strikes you as strange, it would be wise to contemplate the speaker. Did Socrates go on campaign to make himself happier?

Martial rhetoric, the notion that “we’re all in this together,” undoes itself by its very nature. Some go to war because they’d be tried and shot if they didn’t; some break down while training, unable to handle any of it; some freeze up the moment the bullets fly. War is not necessarily a test of one’s strength or nature. Once again, given present circumstances, I have to be clear in a way future generations will not understand. There are people I know who would use this sort of analysis to say that opposing slavery did not merit battle. That’s not a serious consideration. Sometimes, there are things that have to be fought for, as there are duties which must be executed. It’s a separate question of whether one who fights fully realizes what success entails. Success is not the same as moral principle, to say nothing of other considerations.

The funny thing is that full realization of what victory means does lie with someone who cannot fight, or who is prevented from seeing the end of their effort. That doesn’t mean you ought never to fight. It does mean what I said above: success itself is not the moral principle. Only the defeated, the dying, can realize what success itself is. As he defeated – dying – / On whose forbidden ear / The distant strains of triumph / Burst agonized and clear!—success, which you need to feel for your very dignity, only exists relative to defeat. Someone has to lose. This means that success in battle alone does not advance anything moral. War is mere carnage without the prospect of peace.

In a larger sense, our inaction points to the fullest possibility of action. Success is not the moral principle, and being paralyzed by lack of it is likewise not moral. There are different degrees of “ne’er succeed,” and they are comprehended with emotional honesty, with recognition of “sorest need.” We’re back where we started, only incrementally wiser. No specific action, no triumph, is going to tell us what success means for us. We have to try to know ourselves, know what we want, and be ready for a trade-off—defeated and dying is going to happen to all of us, no matter what. Dickinson validates paralyzing anxiety in the same breath she undermines it. If I can verbalize my excuses, surely I can do so much more.

1 Comment

  1. Ashok;

    I’m loving the return to the roots of this blog. I remember stumbling onto your analysis of Shakespeare,Emily Dickinson & Kay Ryan – years ago. I would check in on your blog from time to time to discover poetry and read your analysis.

    I can attest to the fact that your writing has gotten clearer.You’ve succeeded in cultivating clarity in writing and definitely helped me see/poetry from a different prospective. I tend to ground my poetic analysis through emotions and personal memories -that poetry evoke in me. The poems I love are layered with meanings- from when I read them, who shared it with me, and the power and rhythm of the underlying language to become personal.

    For me this poem happens to be the first one I remember ever breaking down in high school English class with a wonderful teacher. It was really my gateway to reading poetry in earnest.

    Thanks for sharing it. Keep up the good work!

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