“Success is Counted Sweetest” on Emily Dickinson’s 187th Birthday

[Emily Dickinson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right] Prints and Photographs Division.

This coming Sunday, December 10, marks what would be Emily Dickinson’s 187th birthday. Around the country, Dickinson lovers will gather together to read all 1,789 of her known poems in a “marathon” tradition and tribute to the Belle of Amherst. The Library, in partnership with the Folger Shakespeare Library, hosted one such marathon in 2014.

Famously private and reclusive, Dickinson did not seek out publication for her work. Scholars believe that only 7-10 of her 1,789 poems were published in her lifetime, and none of them were authorized for publication by Dickinson herself. What’s more, all poems were published anonymously.

Her beloved poem, “Success is counted sweetest”—“Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed. …”—is numbered among those few published in Dickinson’s lifetime. Written in 1859, and first anonymously published in the Brooklyn Daily Union on April 27, 1864, “Success” is also the only known poem of Dickinson’s to be published in a book during her lifetime.

A Masque of Poets: Including Guy Vernon, a Novelette in Verse. 1878.

The story goes like this: Years after the poem’s first publication in 1864, Emily Dickinson’s close friend, Helen Hunt Jackson—a popular poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist in her own right—urged Dickinson to submit “Success is counted sweetest” to a forthcoming anthology of anonymous poetry. Jackson, apparently, didn’t understand her friend’s reticence to publish, and continued to push her, stating in one letter that submitting a poem to the anthology would give pleasure to “somebody somewhere whom you do not know.” Dickinson resisted so fiercely that she reportedly sought assistance from their mutual friend and mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to tell Jackson he disapproved of the contribution as well.

A Masque of Poets. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Nevertheless, A Masque of Poets—published by Roberts Brothers and edited by George Parsons Lathrop—hit printers in 1878 and included “Success” among its pages. Since Dickinson had so intensely rebuffed Jackson’s pleas, it’s widely suggested that Jackson submitted the poem without her friend’s explicit consent. In a letter Jackson sent to Dickinson after the book’s publication, she wrote, “I suppose by this time you have seen the Masque of Poets. I hope you have not regretted giving me that choice bit of verse for it.”

In a published review of A Masque of Poets, Helen Hunt Jackson named “Success” as “undoubtedly one of the strongest and finest wrought things in the book,” though, since the whole anthology omitted attribution, cautioned readers not to speculate on the poem’s authorship. Perhaps this was Jackson’s way of appeasing her private friend. Regardless, it seems, many readers attributed the poem to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Which of Dickinson’s poems would you read to your loved ones in celebration of the poet’s birthday? Tell us in the comments.

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References:

Barnstone, Aliki. Changing Rapture: Emily Dickinson’s Poetic Development. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2006.

Phillips, Kate. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Priddy, Anna. Bloom’s How to Write about Emily Dickinson. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008.

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