Study Guide

Success is counted sweetest Quotes

  • Dissatisfaction

    Success is counted sweetest
    By those who ne'er succeed. (1-2)

    Our speaker-teacher drops the lesson on us right from the get-go. Only the losers in life really know what it means to be a winner. That's a sad paradox. Do you think that explains why we tend to root for the underdog and boo the defending champion?

    To comprehend a nectar
    Requires sorest need. (3-4)

    You can't just kind of want something in order to understand it. You have to desire it in the most profound way possible. "Sorest need" is key, at least in the speaker's estimation. So, at least there's a silver lining to that deep dissatisfaction you might be feeling.

    Not one of all the purple Host
    Who took the Flag today
    Can tell the definition
    So clear of victory (5-8)

    Bully for you, purple Host. You may have won the battle and captured the flag, but you'll never be able to fully understand why that's important. Do you think that dampens their enjoyment of success? Should it?

    As he defeated – dying –
    On whose forbidden ear (9-10)

    Dying is pretty dissatisfying. This soldier is paying the ultimate price for losing the battle, but he's also receiving the ultimate reward: a full appreciation of what it means to be victorious. Still, we doubt that this is much in the way of consolation for a dying man.

    The distant strains of triumph
    Burst agonized and clear! (11-12)

    This is an odd description, but it's a pretty telling one. Line 12 puts "agonized" and "clear" together to remind us that agony is directly linked to understanding. You have to feel the pain before you receive the gain… of understanding and appreciation. Um, good for you?

  • Ambition

    Success is counted sweetest
    By those who ne'er succeed. (1-2)

    These lines make us feel a lot better about not getting elected class president any of the six years we ran. All the same, we wonder if people regret being successful. Does success have to mean a loss of appreciation? Does failure always mean enlightenment?

    Not one of all the purple Host
    Who took the Flag today
    Can tell the definition
    So clear of victory (5-8)

    The victory won by the ambitious purple host comes at a cost in the speaker's eyes: a lack of understanding. Still, the losing, dying soldier was also ambitious. He fought the same battle, after all. By that measure, this poem is less about the evils of ambition, and more about the perils of success—and the comforts of the epic fail.

  • Suffering

    To comprehend a nectar
    Requires sorest need. (1-2)

    The word choice of "sorest" is pretty telling here. Dickinson could have gone with "gravest," "deepest," or any number of adjectives. But she went with this word, which prominently features the word "sore." She's insisting that physical suffering—in this case thirst—is required for true understanding.

    As he defeated – dying –
    On whose forbidden ear (9-10)

    The soldier is experiencing some pretty serious suffering here, dying as he is on a battlefield. He's totally shut out from the experience of the victors—and yet he's still exposed to their victory song. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.

    The distant strains of triumph
    Burst agonized and clear! (11-12)

    Is the music agonized in these lines? It might seem that way, but that's only because it's falling on the tortured ear of this dying solider. The agony and the suffering is all his, but on the bright side he now understands what it victory means. So… um, yay?