In "Water, is taught by thirst" and "Success is counted sweetest", how is the paradox of each poem resolved?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I am assuming that this is a follow-up question to the answer that I gave yesterday about these two poems, so I have altered the question to respond to "Water, is taught by thirst" and "Success is counted sweetest." Remember, when we think about paradoxes in literature, we are considering a statement that appears self-contradictory but actually reveals a kind of truth. The test of a good paradox is if the author can make us see this revelation of truth or not. So, when you talk in your question about how the paradoxes are "resolved," I take it that this is what you are referring to.

"Water, is taught by thirst" talks about the series of emotions that we experience and how we actually learn them, paradoxically stating that we can only understand these emotions and nouns when we are deprived of them. So, for example, we only understand water and appreciate its life-giving properties when we suffer its absence. Likewise, peace is only to be appreciated in the context of warfare - it is only by experiencing warfare that we can truly appreciate and be thankful for peace. The most moving example Dickinson gives in this poem is perhaps "Love, by Memorial Mold," which points towards the sad truth that we only realise how much we love someone and how important they were to us in our lives when they are dead and we only have their gravestone to remember them. The poem likewise ends with the reminder that we can only appreciate the joys of spring and birds singing having lived through the dark, silent winter. Joy is impossible, Dickinson seems to be saying, without its corollary, suffering and darkness.

Dickinson uses a similar technique to present the paradoxical nature of success in "Success is counted sweetest." The first two lines of this poem establish this paradox perfectly:

Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne'er succeed.

As the poem continues, Dickinson resolves this paradox or presents us with its truth by giving us the example of a soldier, "defeated - dying -" who hears the victorious side celebrating their victory. It is only through an appreciation of failure and loss that we can truly understand success.

So, in both these poems Dickinson uses paradox to great effect, forcing us to see the truth that lies behind these apparently contradictory statements.

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