One can establish an apparent quest for truth in the death-themed “Success is Counted Sweetest” (Dickinson). In the first stanza, success is most appreciated, Dickinson writes: “By those who ne’er succeed. / To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need” (2–4).
In the professional judgment of author Beth Macly Doriani, the poem is “less an exercise in self-consolation than assured declarations of truth: pursuit and struggle do have value [as] the agony and defeat…precede the triumph and “comprehension” of victory” (170). Additional analysis, suggests the work “seems to argue even the superiority of defeat over victory since the former results in spiritual gain [and] awareness…crucial for the prophet” (Doriani 170). That’s great, but what would a less idealistic (and perhaps more palatable) appraisal reveal?
“Success is Counted Sweetest” by those that may seek a mystic glory while, within the same pursuit, ignoring a grim alternative—reality!
Specifically, the poem exposes that those who seek to win a mystical glory through an all too real (physical or metaphorically religious) battle might discover the true jubilance of victory as they, the defeated, wilt to the throes of death. In the simplest form, the poem reveals those chasing eternal grandeur from a (physical or spiritual) war might come to realize, in death, that life is the source of jubilance. In the end, a grand discovery is divulged—but the revelation comes too late.
The essential truth of “Success” is to question the nobility of hyperbolic or mythical illusions. One could assume, in 19th century America, the questioning of one’s mortality might not make a favorite topic of conversation. So, imagine trying to curiously inquire about long-held religious beliefs—as a member of a Puritan community (reminder, this is Puritans from the 1800s). So, what are the odds a girl afraid to discuss time with her father, would grow to ask aloud if the afterlife is bunk?
The second example of Emily Dickinson’s pursuit of an alluding truth is found in her religious-themed poetry.
One must note the adequately consistently inconsistent nature of many Dickinson religious works. In A More Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art, Glen Hughes declares Dickinson’s poems provide a “severe honesty [that looks to] consistently explore and articulate genuine truths about the human situation” (65).
Hughes highlights a key to Dickinson’s work is that “human beings are, first and last, passionate questioners…for a certainty and fulfillment that remain unavailable to us in this lifetime” (65). Therefore, one must understand Dickinson’s religious themes seek a truth that will be left unfulfilled.
For instance, within the same poem, a bold declaration will be countered by an equally audacious but opposing statement.
In “Going to Heaven!” Dickinson writes: “I’m glad that I don’t believe it / For it would stop my breath” (20-21). These lines represent the belief in the afterlife is a sign of impending death. Later in the poem, the point is countered by declaring, “I am glad they did believe it” (25). Why is the narrator glad? Turns out that “they” are dead. The poem establishes a clear distinction of certainty, in that within the supernatural, the afterlife, and the religious proclamations there are no certainties. One must understand the dogmatic origins of confusion within Dickinson’s religious poetry.
“The Ambiguous Relationship with Religion: The Poems of Emily Dickinson” explains that “truth was the guiding force [to Dickinson’s desire to] realize truth wholeheartedly” (Gain). However, “she did not want to borrow the phraseology of clergyman [and Dickinson’s] search of truth was kind of a spiritual quest” (Gain).
Also, religious ideology would begin to face scrutiny under the challenge of worldly discovery. During Dickinson’s lifetime, conflicting views between religion and new knowledge would add confusion to her life, leading to questions often explored within her religious-themed poems.
As one of America’s most famous recluses, innuendo, distortion, and personal agenda would enhance the rise of Dickinson’s lore.
Although, open to interpretation, “there is a constant wobble in Dickinson’s dualism; she is always questioning both faith and doubt” (St. Armand 34). She was likely not a black magic witchy queen hell-bent on future shaping the 19th century Puritans—NO! Emily Dickinson was merely an intelligent Puritan girl too afraid to admit to her lack of understanding that as a woman would continue to be scared to ask questions—so, she wrote it down.
Of course, the only way to acquire absolution to Dickinson’s works would be to ask her—but, long ago, the moss silenced Emily Dickinson’s quest for both truth and beauty.
Dickinson, Emily. “Letters from Dickinson to Higginson.” Received by Thomas Higginson, Dickinson/Higginson Correspondence: 16 August 1870 (Letter 342), Dickinson Electronic Archives, 20 Mar. 2000, https://www.archive.emilydickinson.org/correspondence.
Doriani, Beth Maclay. Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy. University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. p. 170.
Gain, Anannya. “Ambiguous Relationship with Religion: The Poems of Emily Dickinson” International Journal of English Language, Literature in Humanities, 4 Apr. 2017, https://www.ijellh.com/ambiguous-relationship-with-religion-the-poems-emily-dickinson.
Hughes, Glenn. A More Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art, University of Missouri Press, 2014. p. 65.
St. Armand, Barton Levi. “Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin.” Emily Dickinson International Society, May 2015, p. 34. www.emilydickinsoninternationalsociety.org.
Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge. University of Iowa Press, 1996. p. 191.