Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was one of the premier American poets of the 19th century. One of time's greatest female poets, Ms. Dickinson rarely graced any of her poems with a title, however this does not detract from the eloquence of her works. Neither does the fact that none of her poetry was published during her lifetime. One example of her skill as a poetess was written circa 1859. The poem is called “Success is Counted Sweetest”, which happens to be the first line of the poem, a common trend for untitled poetry. “Success Is Counted Sweetest” displays various aspects of poetry, such as word choice, imagery, assonance and rhyme.
The first stanza of the poem stands out from the rest of the poem, due to its elegant flow and simple statement.
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
This stanza flows smoothly due to the number of syllables per line being roughly the same throughout. The first three lines each have 7, and the final line has 6. This allows this stanza to effortlessly glide out of the mouth of one who is reading it aloud. This stanza follows a simple rhyme scheme where the second and fourth lines rhyme but the first and third do not (a – b – c – b). This stanza is also littered with hard C sounds and soft S sounds.
Whereas the first stanza is pretty straight-foreword, Emily Dickinson throws the reader/listener a curveball with the following stanza.
Not One of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear a Victory
The first stanza was to the point, success feels the best to those who haven't succeeded in a while, to fully understand the feeling, you must really want it. With this stanza, I feel that she changes the subject to one where success is not so clear-cut, warfare. Nowhere does victory/success have as much of an impact as it does in warfare. Cultures, nations and people are all changed by the travesties and success in war. As per her style, Emily uses an intelligent choice of words to say what she wants to say, without being blunt about it. In the first pair of lines of this stanza, she uses the phrase purple Host. This can be interpreted as a wounded soldier in the homeland's army. While purple was considered the color that the powerful men wore on their toga's in ancient Rome, it also is the color of a heart that is awarded to soldiers that have been wounded in battle. The next line says that they won, as they captured the flag. The following pair of lines adds depth to the feelings of the wounded soldiers. While the higher-ups might have looked upon the battle as a strategic victory, the enemy defeated and a precious commodity or supply line saved, what does the wounded think? In the 19th century and earlier, medicine was nowhere near what it is today. Taking a bullet to the leg might have meant a highly painful amputation, or infection. If a soldier lost a leg, arm or friend in battle, the “success” would taste more bittersweet than the sweetness described in the opening stanza. Also, while the other two stanzas depict a case of exact rhyme, the rhyme in this stanza is near, giving the reader a sense of the feelings of those involved, as it is sweet, but not as sweet as it should be.
In the third and final stanza to this poem, Ms. Dickinson takes the reader inside the possible mind of one of the fallen on this day of warfare.
As he defeated – dying -
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear
Woe is the fallen soldier, who lay in the mud, barely clinging on to the last strands life. In this stanza Emily Dickinson keeps going with the feeling she garnered in the previous stanza, though instead of focusing on the injured victor, she points the poem at a fallen foe. The use of words such as forbidden, strains and the final line paint a clear portrait of a soldier, who, on death's door, hears the cries of the victors. The last line describes the sorrow the man feels perfectly, straining to hear, the sounds of the joyous victors kick him while he's down.
As is common with some of Emily Dickinson's works, she starts the reader off thinking about one thing and then twists the poem into a different meaning entirely, all without losing the reader/listeners. This, combined with rhyme, her acute word choice, which helps to paint several images in the mind's eye and the assonance heard in the first stanza show the skill of this simple woman from Amherst.
All center justified text is written by Emily Dickenson. My poetry isn't that caliber yet. All links have been added by me, and do not appear in the origional text of the work. CST Approved