Study Guide

Success is counted sweetest

Success is counted sweetest Introduction

Isn't it ironic… don't you think? Like rain on your wedding day or a free ride when you're already there?

Actually, no—neither of those things is ironic. (Irony is basically when the opposite outcome or meaning occurs, but hit up our link for the full lowdown.) What is ironic is that they both appear in a song called… "Ironic," by Alanis Morissette. Poor Alanis. She doesn't seem to understand what irony really means—which of course is totally ironic.

Something else that might be confused for irony is Emily Dickinson's poem "Success is counted sweetest." It describes the strange fact that you have to be denied something before you can truly appreciate it. To put it in another cheesy pop band way, "You don't know what you got till it's gone."

Technically speaking, though, this is more paradox than irony. Still, it's a truth that bears looking into. Why is it that it's always the thing we don't have that seems most precious to us, whether it's money, love, or the last Beanie Baby that you need to complete your collection? What? We can dream, can't we?

Dickinson's poem clearly struck a chord, as it was one of seven (count 'em) poems that she published in her lifetime. If it seems strange to you that a mega-poet like Dickinson only published seven poems in her life, well then you're just not up on your Dickinson biography.

She spent most of her life living at home in her parents' house. As a result, she's been portrayed as everything from a shy recluse to an introspective visionary. Whatever the case, the bulk of Dickinson's poetry wasn't discovered until after her death in 1886.

The poems—nearly 1800 in all—were collected in hand-stitched books called fascicles. For a variety of reasons, they didn't appear in print until 1955. Sadly, Dickinson was long gone before she rose to fame. And the seven poems she did see published in her life were all anonymous. Clearly, she wasn't big on self-promotion.

Of those seven, six appeared in newspapers or journals. Only one made it into an actual book. Can you guess which it was? If you said "Success is counted sweetest," give yourself a thousand bonus points. This poem first appeared in the April 24, 1864 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Union, but then later in an 1878 anthology called A Masque of Poets.

Technically, then, that makes this the most successful of Dickinson's poems. So what are you waiting for? Dive in and see what the fuss is all about.

What is Success is counted sweetest About and Why Should I Care?

What do you want right now? What is it that you're really, truly craving? An A in English? A new car? A cheeseburger? Whatever it is, we're guessing that it's not something that's within arm's reach. For that matter, it may take years—even decades—for you to lay your grubby little paws on it.

That, as they say, is life. The things we desire most are never those things that are easy to get. But did you every stop to consider that all that wanting might actually be a good thing? We dream about the time when what we want becomes ours, pining away in day in and day out. But that obsessive focus actually might be the pathway to enlightenment.

Let us explain. How many of your possessions to you really, truly appreciate? You can lump your family members and loved ones in there too. If you're still listing, we're going to stop you. According to Emily Dickinson's "Success is counted sweetest," the answer is… zero.

Once you have something, you see, you stop focusing on it. It's yours, so why would you devote the same kind of attention to that person or possession? Nope, all your brain cells are focused on the next thing that you don't have—and herein lies the central paradox of this poem's life lesson: it's only through wanting something that we can truly understand and appreciate it.

So, the next time you're totally bummed because the latest video game or that person you're crushing on seems hopelessly out of reach, cheer yourself up with this poem. It will remind you that the sensations you're feeling are key to true understanding and appreciation. Don't let all that jonseing drag you down. Embrace the neediness. Trust us—meditating on the fringe benefits of human cravings is way more fun than suffering from those cravings yourself.

Success is counted sweetest Resources

Websites

The Poetry Foundation is Counted Sweetest
This site features a great Emily Dickinson biography and links to her poetry to get you started.

Distant Strains of Poems
Poets.org features a quick overview of Dickinson's life, but the a ton of links to her poetry.

The Homestead and The Evergreens
Just where did Dickinson write all those unpublished poems? You can find out at this museum.

Manuscript Central
Here you can check out the original, hand-written drafts of Dickinson's poetry.

Video

Student Vid
This poem seems to be a popular choice for student film projects on YouTube. This is certainly… one of those.

The Belle of Amherst
Here's a play about Dickinson's life and times.

Voices and Visions
This is a dated, but informative, documentary on Dickinson.

Audio

A Prairie Home Reading
This features multiple readings of the poem, including one by Garrison Keillor.

Librivox'd
Here's the audio book version of the poem.

Sleepy Reading
Having trouble nodding off? This reading will help.

Images

The Emily We Know
Here's the most popular image of our poet.

Another View
Have another view of our poet.

Sticking to the Manuscript
Want to see the original draft of the poem? Click right ahead.

Articles and Interviews

"A Poetry-Fueled War"
Emily Dickinson lived—and wrote—through the U.S. Civil War, which is the focus of this interview.

"Unsettling Emily Dickinson "
This interview discusses Dickinson's "envelope poems."

Books

The Poems of Emily Dickinson
Get 'em while they're hot—right here.

My Wars are Laid Away in Books
Check out this biography of Dickinson.