Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory!

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

A common idea in Dickinson's poems is that not having increases our appreciation or enjoyment of what we lack; the person who lacks (or does not have) understands whatever is lacking better than the person who possesses it. In this poem, the loser knows the meaning '"definition" of victory better than the winners. The implication is that he has "won" this knowledge by paying so high a price, with the anguish of defeat and with his death.

In stanza one, she repeats the s sound and, to a lesser degree, n. Why does she use this alliteration? i.e., are the words significant? "Sorest" is used with the older meaning of greatest, but can it also have the more common meaning? What are the associations of "nectar"--good, bad, indifferent? Does "nectar" pick up any word in the first line?

In stanza two, "purple" connotes royalty; the robes of kings and emperors were dyed purple. It is also the color of blood. Are these connotations appropriate to the poem? In a battle, what does a flag represent? Why is victory described in terms of taking the losing side's flag?

In stanza three, what words are connected by d sounds and by s sounds? Is there any reason for connecting or emphasizing these words? Dickinson is compressing language and omitting connections in the last three lines. The dying man's ears are not forbidden; rather, the sounds of triumph are forbidden to him because his side lost the battle. The triumphant sounds that he hears are not agonized, though they are clear to him; rather, he is agonized at hearing the clear sounds of triumph of the other side. They are "distant" literally in being far off and metaphorically in not being part of his experience; defeat is the opposite of or "distant" from victory.

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

Core Studies 6 Page || Melani Home Page

February 26, 1009