Study Guide

Success is counted sweetest

Success is counted sweetest Summary

The poem's speaker starts with a message for us: it's the folks who never succeed that really crave success the most. In order to understand a "nectar," you have to be seriously in need. Then she describes an army of sorts, saying that the victorious side ("the purple Host/ Who took the Flag") can't define victory better than the poor, defeated, dying soldier who will never know what it's like to have won the battle (5-6)—too bad. At least he's got that going for him, though.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    Success is counted sweetest
    By those who ne'er succeed.

    • We start off with a lesson of sorts.
    • The poem's speaker lets us know that only those who "ne'er succeed" can most appreciate the concept of success.
    • To put it more directly: you have to be a real loser to truly appreciate success.
    • That, friends, is a paradox. How can you most appreciate something that you don't even have?
    • And yet, we think that that speaker makes a certain kind of sense here. It's the folks who never get to experience the satisfaction of success who will most want that feeling.
    • If you're into sports, you might think about how hard it is for defending champions to repeat, since they have to fight off all the players who want that success that they've never had a chance to experience.
    • If you're not into sports, try substituting any of the following instead: spelling bees, business ventures, literary awards, chili cook-offs—you get the idea.
    • The use of the figurative adjective "sweetest" here really drives home how important success is to those who can't attain it. It's as though they can almost taste it.

    Lines 3-4

    To comprehend a nectar
    Requires sorest need.

    • Hmm—here we're presented with a bit of a puzzling metaphor.
    • The literal translation here is that you have to be really, really, really thirsty ("sorest need") in order to fully understand ("comprehend") a… nectar?
    • Was Dickinson a juice fanatic or what?
    • Probably not—she was more than likely using "nectar" in a more general sense. In classical literature, nectar was the gods' beverage of choice—kind of like a divine Diet Dr. Pepper. In this sense, then, nectar really means anything you would really like to partake of.
    • In order to even understand what you desire, argues the speaker, you have to want it, and not just a little bit.
    • As we look back on this stanza, we're given two examples to illustrate essentially the same lesson: in order to really appreciate something, you a) can't currently have it and b) have to need it real bad—like Napoleon's chap stick.
    • We should also point out that we have some rhyme and metrical patterns starting to emerge here. We say a whole lot more about that over in "Form and Meter."
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 5-6

    Not one of all the purple Host
    Who took the Flag today

    • We don't know about you, but when we think of a purple host, we imagine going to a party at Grimus's house.
    • Again, though, our weird free-associating is probably not what Dickinson was on about.
    • Instead, she's using "Host" to mean a large group, probably in reference to a bunch of people.
    • We can guess that much because this host "took the Flag," which sounds like fun to us.
    • Did you ever play Capture the Flag as a kid (or maybe as a tween paintballer)? It's a competition where two teams try to outmaneuver each other in order to steal the other team's flag.
    • It's also a pretty accurate reinvention of conventional warfare, in which two sides meet on a field in order to take over the other's camp and remove their status symbol (the flag).
    • The importance of the flag probably explains why it's capitalized here, too.
    • In this case, Dickinson describes the winners as "the purple Host," giving them two distinctions.
    • Distinction 1: like "Flag," the "Host" is capitalized, lending that word added importance. Capitalizing odd words for emphasis is a classically Dickinsonian move. Check out "Calling Card" for more.
    • Distinction 2: this Host is purple. Maybe they're fans of Prince? More likely, the color purple is meant to convey a sense of honor.
    • Traditionally, purple was a color reserved for royalty or nobility, so this particular host is an important, honorable, and victorious group—good for those guys.

    Lines 7-8

    Can tell the definition
    So clear of victory

    • Line 7 picks after the enjambment of line 6 to let us know that these victorious soldiers may be winners, but they can't give us a definition.
    • Remember that this stanza started with the word "Not" back in line 5, so we know now that not one of these guys can give us a definition.
    • More specifically, they can't give us the definition of… "victory." Even though they're all big winners, they can't do it as clear as… someone else, anyway. We're not told in this stanza.
    • We should point out what's going on in line 8, though, since the syntax is funky. Maybe Dickinson was a Prince fan after all.
    • The "So" here is better thought of as… "as." In other words, what we have here in this stanza is a comparison. Essentially, Dickinson's saying, "No one in this victorious army could define victory as clearly ("So clear") as…" and then we don't get the comparison before the stanza break.
    • Instead, we have another enjambment, so we're left to rush off to the poem's third and final stanza. Off we go…
      …right after we point out that the rhyme and rhythms of this stanza kind of, sort of match up with the first. We say more about that in "Form and Meter."
  • Stanza 3

    Line 9

    As he defeated – dying –

    • When we last left our speaker, she was explaining that this purple group of victors could not define "victory" as clearly as… as… and here after some more enjambment we have our answer: "he."
    • Before we say more about this mysterious "he" fellow, we'll just point out that we're simply guessing that our speaker is a "she," since we have no other info to go on at this point. For more on that, check out our "Speaker" section.
    • For now, let's get back to Mr. Dictionary, with his super-ability to define words like "victory."
    • As it turns out, "he" is both "defeated" and "dying"—bad times indeed. We guess it doesn't really pay to be Mr. Dictionary, after all.

    Lines 10-12

    On whose forbidden ear
    The distant strains of triumph
    Burst agonized and clear!

    • Some more enjambment leads us to additional info on this defeated and dying dude.
    • He's got a "forbidden" ear. So maybe… he stole it or something? But who would forbid someone from having an ear?
    • Nobody in her right mind, that's who. This is another example of that funky syntax we saw line 8. In this case, "forbidden" doesn't mean that the ear itself is forbidden. Instead, it's forbidden from hearing something.
    • Line 11 tells us what that something is: the "strains of triumph." "Strains" just mean the faint notes of a song.
    • In other words, this ear—which belongs to a loser of the battle—is forbidden from hearing the victory song in all its full glory.
    • Instead of being cranked up to eleven on the volume dial, this is turned down to a one for this poor guy.
    • That might explain why line 12 describes these strains as "agonized." The dying soldier can barely make them out, but of course he's forbidden to hear them since, you know, he's one of the losers.
    • Still, he can make out these notes playing for the victors, that "purple Host," even as he's dying. That much is "clear" to him, which probably only ups the agony factor.
    • Imagine it this way: you've just lost the state championship game and you're walking off the field-pitch-court-track. Over your shoulder, you can hear Queen starting up to celebrate the champions. Wish that song was for you? Well… tough tinnitus—winning songs are for winners only, and you are not in the club.
    • To sum up, then, this defeated soldier is tortured by the sounds of the victory parade—even as he lies dying on the battlefield.
    • And yet, he still has one thing going for him: he knows victory inside and out.
      Our speaker's message, once again, is that paradoxical notion that you have to be totally denied something before you can truly appreciate what it is. 
    • As readers, we can also appreciate how this stanza sticks to its rhythm and a rhyme scheme.
    • In the end, though, we're conflicted: does being able to fully appreciate something make up for the fact that you're never going to attain that thing? 
    • You make the call, Shmoopers.