illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

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What is the tone of Emily Dickinson's "Success is Counted Sweetest"?

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The tone of Emily Dickinson's "Success is Counted Sweetest" is mournful and bittersweet. The poem laments the agony of those who never succeed and suggests that true appreciation of success comes only through suffering and defeat. While the sentiment is grim, the tone remains matter-of-fact, highlighting the contrast between victory and the deep understanding gained through loss.

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One way to identify and analyze tone is to look at the writer’s word choice, which we refer to as diction. Emily Dickinson’s poem “Success is Counted Sweetest” is, like most of her poems, very brief--a mere 53 words. Dickinson’s skill as a poet lies in her ability to say a lot in the space of those few words. Let’s look at her diction and see what kind of tone we can identify.

Ne’er (the truncated form of “never”--Dickinson wanted to shave off half a syllable here), sorest need, not one, defeated, dying, forbidden, distant, agonized.

Here are ten words, almost 20 percent of the poem, that communicate the idea of loss and of being denied the joy of victory. When determining a tone it is important to remember that you’re looking for a word that that expresses the artist’s attitude toward his/her work. There is rarely, if ever, just one correct tone to a work, because there is always variation in the readers’ perception of the work.

I would say that the tone of “Success is Counted Sweetest” is mournful. It laments the “agony” (to use one of Dickinson’s own words from the poem) of those who suffer in defeat not just once, but always. But you, and countless other readers, might perceive a different tone, although all would have something to do with how it feels to "ne'er succeed."

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It is difficult to find an absolutely upbeat poem in Dickinson's work because she focused so many of her poems on death and dying.  For what seems to be truly upbeat, you might take a look at "Wild Nights."

Even though the tone of "Success is counted sweetest" is not particularly grim, the sentiment Dickinson expresses is, and she sets the parameters of this poem in the opening lines when she says "Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne'er succeed."  And her first example is, of course, a hummingbird that truly understands the value of nectar when it is in "sorest need."

The second and third stanzas continue this theme of understanding the value of something, in this case, success, when one is in the depths of defeat.  Dickinson essentially says that victors in a battle really don't understand the value of victory, but the dying and defeated warrior who hears the celebratory trumpets of victory is the only one who truly understands victory--primarily because victory has slipped away.

In typical Dickinson fashion, this poem has a bitter-sweet component to it--true understanding of value comes with suffering. Also true to Dickinson form, the poem's matter-of-fact tone is offset by the grimness of the sentiment.

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