Rethinking Success: An In-depth Analysis of Emily Dickinson's "Success is Counted Sweetest

Categories: Emily Dickinson


Emily Dickinson's poetic masterpiece, "Success is Counted Sweetest," delves into the profound intricacies of success, exploring its essence and the diverse perspectives through which it is perceived. Written in iambic trimeter, the poem unfolds universal aphoristic truths that challenge conventional notions of achievement and triumph. In this essay, we will embark on a comprehensive analysis of Dickinson's work, examining the nuances of success, its bittersweet nature, and the intrinsic value it holds for individuals.

The Bittersweet Taste of Success

In the opening stanza, Dickinson contemplates the nature of success, proposing that its true measure is best understood by those who have not directly experienced it.

The assertion that success is most keenly "counted sweetest" by those who have "ne'er succeeded" establishes a paradoxical relationship between achievement and its appreciation. Success, according to Dickinson, is a complex entity, its true value discernible only to those who yearn for it relentlessly.

Furthermore, Dickinson's exploration of failure as an inevitable facet of life adds depth to her reflection on success.

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In her poem "I Had Been Hungry, All the Years," she vividly captures the essence of hunger as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations one must endure. The hunger, akin to failure, becomes a transformative force, shaping individuals and providing them with insights that success alone cannot bestow. This aligns with the belief that genuine wisdom arises from the crucible of adversity.

The use of alliteration, particularly the repetition of the 's' sound in "success," serves to underscore the significance of the term.

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Dickinson posits that success, like a delicacy, tastes sweeter to those who have ardently pursued it. The word 'nectar,' symbolizing water, takes on a subjective quality, emphasizing the role of perception in defining sweetness. Much like a drop of water can be perceived as nectar by the thirsty, success is valued most by those in dire need of its validation.

Positions and Perceptions of Success

Some individuals gauge success through the positions they attain in life, a theme echoed by Dickinson in her exploration of victorious leaders in the poem. The assertion that none of the "purple host" who claimed victory could define it with clarity emphasizes the subjective and elusive nature of success. Arundhati Roy, in her work "The End of Imagination," further amplifies this perspective, arguing that the definition of "successful" is contingent upon individual perceptions.

Roy's example of a soldier's death in war challenges the conventional view of success and failure. The soldier, deemed 'unsuccessful' by others, may still find fulfillment in his sacrifice. Dickinson's use of 'to-day' and the symbolism of 'purple' shed light on the transient nature of success. The color signifies both royalty and blood, implying that those born into privilege may not fully grasp the challenges faced by those who achieve greatness through their endeavors.

Shakespeare's timeless insight, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em," resonates with Dickinson's perspective. Only those who actively strive for success comprehend its true worth. The poetess paints a poignant picture of a defeated individual, whose realization of the futility of war parallels the sentiments expressed by Wilfred Owen in "Strange Meeting."

The Frenzy of Success: A Closer Look

Dickinson delves into the frenetic experience of success, portraying it as a state that clouds objective self-evaluation. The lines depicting the defeated, dying individual's awareness encapsulate the paradoxical nature of triumph and defeat. The "forbidden ear" is a transferred epithet, signifying the exclusion of success from the defeated individual's realm. In contrast, the victorious are immersed in the chaotic "strains of triumph," losing the ability to truly hear and understand the essence of their own success.

The word 'strain' takes on a dual meaning, suggesting not only the effort required for victory but also the potential tension and distortion in its attainment. The alliteration of the 'd' sound in "distant strains of triumph" evokes a sense of distance and defeat, reinforcing the idea that success may be 'strained' when viewed from afar. Dickinson's portrayal of the dying man's clarity in comprehending the futility of war echoes the sentiments expressed by Wilfred Owen in "Strange Meeting," where the true cost of success is laid bare.


In conclusion, Emily Dickinson's "Success is Counted Sweetest" transcends the conventional understanding of success, unraveling its multifaceted nature and the intricate interplay between triumph and defeat. The exploration of failure, the subjective perception of success, and the frenzied state it induces contribute to a nuanced portrayal of this elusive concept. Through meticulous analysis and poignant imagery, Dickinson invites readers to reevaluate their preconceptions about success, challenging them to consider the profound lessons embedded in both victory and defeat.

Updated: Dec 15, 2023
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Rethinking Success: An In-depth Analysis of Emily Dickinson's "Success is Counted Sweetest. (2016, Dec 04). Retrieved from

Rethinking Success: An In-depth Analysis of Emily Dickinson's "Success is Counted Sweetest essay
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