Here's a cheery thought for you: in order to ever truly appreciate something in life, you have to first be seriously bummed out.
Think about it. The state of being happy is kind of a blissful ignorance. In order to truly appreciate anything—loved ones, possessions, accomplishments—you're going to have to go without them. This is a classic good news-bad news scenario. The bad news is that you're totally and completely dissatisfied, practically tortured by not having that thing you crave. On the plus side? At least you now, at long last, understand what it is that's missing. Whether that juice is worth the squeeze is up to you, but it's definitely the dynamic at work in "Success is counted sweetest."
Our speaker is laying it on a little thick here. You can appreciate plenty of things without having to be separated from them.
This poem shows us that dissatisfaction is an important part of the human condition. It's something we should be happy about—or at least happier about.
Climb the corporate ladder, reach for the brass ring, push the envelope… and see where it gets you. You see, ambition can lead to success, but that's not necessarily a good thing. According to the speaker of "Success is counted sweetest," the one thing successful ambition won't get you is enlightenment. Sorry, but full appreciation and understanding is only reserved for the losers of the world. You may not want to admit it, but as soon as you have something, your appreciation of it is going to wane faster than a spray tan in a hurricane. Just as it lends the pain of dissatisfaction a silver lining, this poem also puts a dark cloud over the head of ambition.
Ambition does not guarantee success. This poem provides a warning for the ambitious, though, about the lack of appreciation that invariably accompanies success.
Dickinson's own personal lack of ambition explains why she hates on it in this poem.
You may have heard the phrase "suffer for your art" before. It's true that suffering is often framed as the path for personal enrichment. We're not sure whether that's just meant to make sufferers feel better, or if it's actually true. One thing is sure, though: when it comes to suffering, the speaker of "Success is counted sweetest" is all in.
Now, we talk about the theme of dissatisfaction elsewhere in "Themes," but there is another level to being dissatisfied that this poem is going for, something more profound than just not being able to get what you want. That's where suffering comes in. In essence, the poem is telling us "Gee, we bet you never appreciated how good it is to have ten working fingers until you slammed three of them in your car door." Suffering yields appreciation and insight, goes the argument. So stick your hand in that doorframe and slam away.
The poem shows us that the only path to true insight is through suffering.
Actually, this poem is way off. It doesn't take suffering to appreciate or understand something. It just takes a bit of reflection.