illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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In the poem "Success is counted sweetest" in the third stanza, what is the ear "forbidden" to hear?

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The last stanza of this excellent poem by Emily Dickinson seals her argument that success can only be savoured and understood most by those who, ironically, do not succeed, by giving us an example to prove her point. This example refers to a defeated and dying soldier on a battlefield, who as he lays there, awaiting death and contemplating his failure to succeed, is described as hearing the sounds of victory that the winning army make:

As he defeated--dying--

On whose forbidden ear

The distant strains of triumph

Burst agonised and clear!

Thus the "ear" relates to the ear of this dying soldier, who, Dickinson argues, can "tell the definition" of success much better than any of the victorious army. To understand success, Emily Dickinson seems to be saying, you have to not achieve it, because if you are successful you take it for granted.

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