If you've read our "Symbols" section, you know what desire tastes like. (And if you haven't, the get on over there now to find out.) In this section, we'll explore what it sounds like.
Just like that poor dude who's dying in stanza three, the sounds of success will ring out pretty clearly to you—if you know how to listen, that is. Here's a general hint that will help: pay attention to the echoes.
We have a ton of sonic repetition in this poem, in fact. We'll start with some alliteration:
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need. (1-4)
We have just sixteen words in this first stanza, and yet four of them (that's 25% for you non-math majors) start with S. Three more start with N. And that's not even counting the additional four words that are sporting an S or an N somewhere in the middle or at the end ("counted," "those," "comprehend," and "Requires").
Between that alliteration and consonance, then, we're bombarded with sound echoes before we even get out of the first stanza. The same can be said for the last stanza, too:
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear! (9-12)
Here, instead of S and N sounds, we have S's and D's. We also have a familiar end rhyme in "ear" and "clear." That long E sound also appears in "defeated" (9) and—hey, look at that—is a carryover from words above like "sweetest" (1), "succeed" (2), "need" (4), and "victory" (8). In the poetry biz, that's called assonance .
Now, to return to our earlier question: what's the sound of desire? What does it sound like to truly want something that you can never have? Well, it sounds like all this repetition. Think about it: it's a kind of torture not to be able to attain what you most desire, and that kind of thing is hard to put of your mind.
Dickinson knew that, which is why she snuck so many sound echoes into this compact space. The same sounds keep coming at us, again and again, just like your thoughts about that thing you've always wanted—success, riches, the high score on Ms. Pacman—bounce around in your head all day.
"The title? Let's see… we're sure it's around here somewhere. It's not at the top of the poem—nope. Maybe it's in the table of contents. No table of contents either? Well then let's just use the first line and call it a day."
We can imagine Dickinson's editors having a conversation like this. Since Dickinson wasn't big on publishing her work when she was alive, titles weren't that important to her. Even when this poem first came out in the Brooklyn Daily Union, its title was—wait for it—"Untitled."
Instead, subsequent collections of Dickinson's work have gone with the first line for a title, followed by a number. Depending on the edition you're reading, that number either represents the order in which the poem was found in Dickinson's original fascicle manuscripts (check out "In a Nutshell" for more), or it stands for the chronological order in which they were written.
In either case, a number is going to tell you as much about the poem that follows as a title like "Untitled" will.
So, let's go with that first line, shall we? We shall. "Success is counted sweetest" is, if you ask us, a pretty sweet choice to start things off. It establishes the poem's main focus ("Success"), describes the main dynamic of how it matters to people ("is counted"), and finally ends with a twist: "sweetest." We don't normally associate success with being "sweet"—unless we come from southern California, brah, and then everything is either "gnarly" or "sweet."
This kind of strange adjective, though, is pretty typical of a Dickinson poem. It really drives home how much success can mean to those who never get to experience it. The suggestion of a word like "sweetest" is that these poor folks can figuratively taste it. That reminds us of that old expression: to want something so badly that you can "taste" it. It's like that thing (success in this case) is right there, on the tip of your tongue.
And yet—no soup, or ice cream, for you. That's the true tragedy that this poem is describing.
If you have already hit up our "Speaker" section—and if you haven't, you should totes do that—then you'll know that we think of this poem's speaker as a teacher. She's imparting knowledge to readers near and far. When it comes to the setting, though, school is out… as an option.
The truth is that the only recognizable setting in this poem is not a classroom, but a [insert serious movie voice here] deadly battlefield that pits one group of combatants against another. Only one side can claim victory, though only the loser can understand what that victory truly means. [Roll the tagline: "Success is counted sweetest": coming… to a theater near you."]
Okay, so maybe this poem would not make the best feature film, but it could make a decent short. If we were to direct it, we would make sure to include lots of close-ups on the dying soldier's face as he strained to hear the victory music, playing off in the distance.
As we imagine this shot, we can see that Dickinson was actually on to something. The battlefield is actually a pretty apt choice of setting, because it's a place where success can be a super-big deal. To succeed on a battlefield means that you get to keep your life, while losers are either taken prisoner or worse: killed.
The setting, then, sets up this stark contrast, which then really drives home the poem's argument: you can't really appreciate or even know something unless it's totally denied to you. What better way to illustrate that paradox than with a dying solider, meditating on victory? Sure, it's no fun for the dying soldier, but his example is pretty powerful. So, um, thanks for losing?
Grab a seat, folks. Settle down, settle down. Now, take out your notebooks and pens. Are you ready?
Good, because our speaker is about to drop some knowledge on you. This poem really just develops like one big lesson. That lesson, specifically? "Only those who are denied success can truly ever appreciate it." Still, like any good teacher, our speaker isn't just going to give us the answers. She's going to lead us to that conclusion with a series of helpful examples.
Before we get into those, we should point out that we're simply guessing about our speaker being a "she." We just don't get any information about her. Now, it's always dangerous to confuse a poet with her speaker. Even if they talk through first-person point of view, a speaker can still be an invented character. So, we'll just use a "she" for the sake of convenience.
With that out of the way, let's head back to class. Our speaker starts off by stating the end goal of the lesson. She's trying to teach us that "Success is counted sweetest/ By those who ne'er succeed" (1-2). Then, she uses two examples to show us how this is the case. We get a brief one about the nectar, and then a more detailed one about the dying soldier.
What we don't get, however, is any kind of personal detail. How did the speaker-teacher come to this realization about life? How might she feel about this ultimately sad fact about human existence? It's not about her, though, which again puts us in mind of a good teacher.
You know that teacher you had once that just loved to go on and on about his or her personal experiences? Do you remember those long, pointless stories that never connected to the class material at all? If you do, you're probably better at remembering how annoyed you were than you are at remembering any of the lessons. In this poem, though, the speaker is not going in for any of those pointless personal stories.
Nope—she's focused on our takeaways. And, while that lesson is a pretty harsh one to have to learn, we'd say that it's one she delivers effectively. Just read the rest of our poetry guide here, and we're sure you'll get an A in her class.
At times, this poem can put some funky syntax or nineteenth-century vocabulary in your way. Trust us, though, you won't need serious hiking gear to get over those bumps. Just accept the fact that, in order to truly appreciate something, you must be forever denied it. Once that happy thought kicks in, everything is smooth strolling.
Emily Dickinson is often associated with the ballad form, and for good reason. Her small poems use a form and meter that she knew well from church hymns. (See our "Form and Meter" section for more.) At the same time, when you start to poke around in her poems, you start to realize that her poems tend to look like the proper ballads you might find in a church hymnal, but they actually act like unique jazz tunes, playing loose and fast within a pre-set structure. She changes rhythm and rhyme, then throws in some funky dashes and capitalization to keep her readers on their toes. Check out "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain"or "A Route of Evanescence" for examples of this. Maybe Emily Dickinson is more like Miles Davis than people give her credit for.
When we say "Emily Dickinson," what pops into your mind? If you're reading this, then words like "poet," "homework," and "Why does my English teacher hate me?" might run through your brain. Those in the know, however, associate Dickinson with words like "reclusive," "genius," and "ballad."
We cover those first two ideas over in "In a Nutshell," so for now let's focus on Dickinson's ballad form. Much of Dickinson's poems use it, and for good reason. It's a style of writing that came pretty naturally to her because she was regularly exposed to it in the form of church hymns. Check out "Amazing Grace" for just one example of a ballad.
To write a ballad, you'll first need two sets of lines. The first line should be laid out in iambic tetrameter, followed by a line in iambic trimeter. To see what we mean by that, try reading these two lines out loud. Go ahead, nobody's looking:
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear! (11-12)
When you hears these lines, you should hear a repeating rhythmic pattern:
daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM
daDUM daDUM daDUM
Each "daDUM" represents a single iamb, which just a two-syllable pair in which the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed. If you have four of those in a single line, then you have iambic tetrameter (tetra- means four). If you have three of them, then you have iambic trimeter (tri- means three).
A typical ballad will start with a line of iambic tetrameter and then follow that up with a line of iambic trimeter, and that's just what we see going on here. We also see the ballad's typical rhyme scheme: ABCB, where each letter stands for that line's end rhyme. Check it out:
Success is counted sweetest A
By those who ne'er succeed. B
To comprehend a nectar C
Requires sorest need. (1-4) B
Just look back at that first stanza to take one example. While it has the expected ballad rhyme scheme, its meter is out of step with the traditional form:
Success is counted sweetest (1)
Right off the bat, Dickinson lets us know that something's missing. It's the last up beat to this line. To put this in true iambic tetrameter, you would have to say something like "Success is counted sweetest, man." Okay, so we'll leave the poetry writing to Dickinson, but you get our point. The last iamb of this line is cut off. In terms of rhythm, we're left hanging.
Dickinson also fudges her rhyme scheme:
Not one of all the purple Host A
Who took the Flag today B
Can tell the definition C
So clear of victory (5-8) B*
*That last line, ending in "victory," kind of, sort of rhymes with line 6's "today," but it's a real stretch. That stretch is known as a slant rhyme and, like the cut-off iamb, it lets us that something's amiss.
Of course, that's pretty appropriate for a poem that's all about folks who will never get to attain what they most desire in life. For them, success is just out of reach, and the disturbances in the form and meter here reflect that.
Just because something's out of reach, though, doesn't mean you stop wanting it. That idea is reinforced by all the enjambment that's going on in this poem. Lines and stanzas are cut off mid-thought, only to pick back up again on the next line. This keeps us rushing to the next line to see what happens next, much like a person might hurry after the object of desire.
Unlike those poor folks, though, our desire is fulfilled when we arrive at the next line of the poem. Those for whom success is really sweetest are left hanging, with a sad trombone playing in the background.
Hungry for success? People are frequently described this way. But why? What's at work in this figurative expression? We think it might have something to do with how crucial eating is to, well, everything really. If you don't eat, then soon enough you will cease to be.
This makes eating—and tasting—a pretty powerful experience. Those who are "hungry for success" often want it so badly that they can "taste" it. What is this, personal fulfillment or a pizza buffet? This poem's imagery suggests that it might be a bit of both.
War—what is it good for? In this poem, anyway, it's a handy source of imagery to emphasize Dickinson's argument. Success is important to a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, but, for a soldier in the middle of a war, success can mean life or death. The victors of war might win land or money, but first and foremost they get to keep living. The losers? They often lose a whole lot more than just an armed conflict.
Only nectar and soldier to see here, folks—keep moving.