Emily for Nov 12

November 12th, 2009

Yesterday at work, (I’m an English tutor at Gloucester County College.) a student came in for help with an assignment.  She had to write a 550 word essay analyzing a poem.  The poem she had chosen was “Success is Counted Sweetest” by Emily Dickinson.  Part of my task in helping the student was to ask her questions to force her to look deeper into the poem, so she could better analyze it.  I also had to teach a crash course in creating a thesis and organizing a paper around it, but that’s not the point.  In helping the student, my own understanding of the poem improved—one of the many benefits of tutoring.  Last night, after I’d come home from work, I read Whitman “To Those Who’ve Fail’d” and immediately thought of Dickinson’s poem.

Here is Dickinson’s poem:

Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne’er succeed.

To comprehend a nectar

Requires sorest seed.

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

One whose forbidden ear

The distant strains of triumph

Break, agonized and clear.

Now, scholars have made the connection between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson before.  The poets were contemporaries; they both broke conventions of poetry, and they both had one foot in the Romantic era and the other in the Modern era.  But their writing styles are very different:  Dickinson was a minimalist; Whitman wrote to excess.  So, what I’m doing isn’t exactly new.  For this post, I’m not going to focus on comparing and contrasting Whitman and Dickinson; I’m not even going to focus on comparing and contrasting their poems.  I’m simply going to point out how they both wrote about the same subject (Civil War) and treated almost exactly the same way.

You’ll notice Dickinson organizes her poem almost like an essay.  She introduces her topic of success in the first stanza and defines it.  In the second stanza, she presents a situation that illustrates her point about success.  In the third stanza, she concludes the situation connecting it to the meaning of success from the first stanza.  The situation she presents is the conclusion of a battle during a war, presumably the Civil War; though it could probably apply equally well to any war.  Essentially, she’s saying failures appreciate success much more than those who actually succeed.  The illustration she uses shows the difference between the victor and the loser.  The victor, the one “who took the flag to-day” (Dickinson 6) can’t “tell the definition/so clear, of victory” (7-8).  But the one who lost can.  As the fallen soldier lies “defeated, dying,” (9) he can hear the sounds of victory agonizingly clear.  The speaker of this poem is more concerned with the loser than the victor; the tone is sad, and the focus is on the dying soldier.

The level of care and attention Dickinson and her speaker treat the defeated, dying soldier is very similar to the way Whitman treats them in several of his poems, including “To Those Who’ve Fail’d.”  I first noticed how Whitman’s title is almost a response, or at least a companion, to Dickinson’s—I doubt Whitman ever read her poem; her work wasn’t published, or even really discovered until after her death in 1886.  The poet of democracy addresses all those who have failed and gone unrecognized:  He seeks to give them recognition:  “I’d rear a laurel-cover’d monument,/High, high above the rest” (4-5).  Whitman addresses those who have died “before their time,” (5) clearly sorry that they’re dead.

Both poets address the difference between success and failure and what it means to be a failure.  Dickinson arrives at her definition of failure by defining success.  Whitman uses a straight forward approach to address “those who’ve fail’d (1) and provide examples and illustrations of failures.  In both cases, the failures are treated with respect and dignity because they tried so hard to succeed; their “aspiration[s] [were] vast,” (Whitman 1) and they can “comprehend a nectar” (Dickinson 3).

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