I’ll be posting comparative studies across various concepts, genres and different forms of art which I think will be interesting to interrelate. This is the first in the lot. In this analysis, I have taken a poem written by Emily Dickinson titled “Success is Counted Sweetest” and compared it with the poems on fame and success written before her, as well as with what modern rock songs have to say about similar ideas. We see an incredible shift of thought from the lines written by Keats and Shakespeare, to those by Dickinson, and then finally by modern rock bands – all along the same theme!
Emily Dickinson is considered to be one of the greatest poetesses of American literature, although she received all the praise and appreciation for her poems after her death. She lived most of her life in seclusion, hardly ever stepping out of her house. But even in her isolation she managed to produce the most simple and yet the most beautiful and heart-wrenching poems and made a huge contribution to English literature. ‘Success is Counted Sweetest’ is one such poem and is inarguably one of her best works.
Since Dickinson never titled her poems, the first line is considered to be the poem’s title. Thus the poem starts with, “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed”. Emily Dickinson’s brilliance lies in the fact that the whole essence of her poem is reflected in the first two lines itself; these lines could sum up the entire poem. She goes on to state that the true significance of success can be determined only by the people who have not gained success and that to comprehend the value of anything in life requires “sorest need” for it. Upon reflection, the reader realises that this is true for almost every sphere in life; that successful people take success for granted, rich people take money for granted and selfish people take their lives for granted. It is only the needy who know what they miss.
In the sonnet ‘On Fame’, John Keats describes fame as a “wayward girl” who “will be still coy/To those who woo her with too slavish knees”. He compares fame to a woman who will never agree to men that pursue her with too much affection and fervour but will “surrender to some thoughtless boy” who is humble and well-deserving of her. This poem, of course, runs with the fact that fame does not last long with the ones who have forgotten to value it or have taken it for granted. Fame “will not speak to those/Who have not learnt to be content without her”. Therefore, Keats and Dickinson both agree that success or fame will be simply snatched away from ones who have gulped it far too much into their lives and will appear as a sip of fresh water to the thirsty and hard-working, yet not so desiring as to be desperate. Anyone’s best bet to attain success in life is to “Make your best bow to her and bid adieu/Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.”
Dickinson goes on to create an imagery of a battlefield, where one army has just won the war. Yet, it is not the triumphant army who can tell the definition of victory, but the soldier from the defeated army who is left dying on the ground, and “on whose forbidden ear/The distant strains of triumph/Burst agonised and clear.” In ancient times, war was considered as a sport for victory. The only way to die honourably, was to die in war defending one’s motherland. Soon, wars became less about defending one’s country and more about uprooting someone else’s country. They became an instrument to satisfy man’s growing greed for land and wealth – covetousness disguised by excessive patriotism and bringing glory to the country. Dickinson hints at this very ruthlessness of thought and brings forth the defeated soldier as a victim imposed to fight and die alone. She brings to light the futility of war and how the soldier lost his life defending a lost cause and, in his last minutes, had to bear the agony of listening to the victorious strains of the other side.
Shakespeare, in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, described this as “Death, in guerdon of her wrongs/ Gives her fame which never dies/ So the life that died with shame/ Lives in death with glorious fame.” The soldier who lost his life would be made a martyr in his home country and his deeds would be glorified as a sacrifice to preserve the greatness of his nation. Thus, the burden of the sins committed by him and the shame that he died with is sugar-coated into fighting for a higher cause and serving the nation. All these ideas are revoked by Dickinson in her poem, where the readers do not place the soldier on a pedestal of heroism but glance at his remains in empathy of his victimisation.
Although ‘Success is Counted Sweetest’ is a step into modern thought, Emily Dickinson followed conservatism. Her portrayal of the soldier as a victim is only glimpsed at. Even though following the same line of thought, modern song-writers are not as conservative as she was and freely express their disbelief in the system and emphasise its flaws and wrongdoings. In 1995, the band ‘Iron Maiden’ made the futility of war ring true with their song ‘The Aftermath’. The chorus outlines all the questions trying to reason the idea of war (“In the mud and rain/What are we fighting for?/Is it worth the pain/Is it worth dying for?”) and then the last line “Should we be fighting at all?” brings it home with the realisation that war is a mere loss of peace and no success can be inferred from it. The song concentrates on the living soldiers who have fought hard and returned to their homeland, unlike Dickinson who concentrates on the dying soldier, and highlights the soldier’s perspective on the aftermath – “After the war/Left feeling no one has won/After the war/What does a soldier become?”
In their album ‘Living Things’, the band ‘Linkin Park’ has brought forth the victimisation of soldiers and also, people in general, by the political system of their country. The song ‘In My Remains’ is the one that highlights a dying soldier’s wish and his regrets as he breathes his last on the battlefield, “Now in my remains/Are promises that never came/Set this silence free/To wash away the worst of me”, while the soldiers still fighting the war indeed just grope around in misery in realisation of their leaders’ indifference towards their lives and try to catch on to a thread of hope to survive (“Come apart/Falling in the cracks of every broken heart/Digging through the wreckage of your disregard/Sinking down and waiting for a chance to feel alive”).
Yet, nothing invites comparison with ’Success is Counted Sweetest’ than Green Day’s ‘Holiday’ and ’21 Guns’. In ‘Holiday’, Green Day ridiculed all the companies that profited from the Iraq War and it was an unabashed outcry against the workings of the American government. It also, like Emily Dickinson, talks of the soldiers who lost their lives (“The shame/The ones who died without a name”) and the defeated side (“Hear the dogs howling out of key/To a hymn called ‘Faith and Misery’/And bleed, the company who lost the war today”). The chorus speaks about the falsity of the political leaders and how the citizens vacation themselves from reality in search of economic profit. The only ones who seem to care about the lost lives and distance themselves from benefitting from the war are the outlaws – “I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies/This is the dawning of the rest of our lives/On holiday”.
’21 Guns’ could very well serve as an anthem for any peace-loving country. It begins by plainly stating the idea that Dickinson had hinted at in her poem using imagery and metaphors – “Do you know what’s worth fighting for/When it’s not worth dying for?”. The lines “Does the pain weigh out the pride/And you look for a place to hide” bring out the feelings of the soldier and his loss of pride in himself and his abilities. The pain becomes so overbearing, it shatters his pride to pieces. The song points out that all a soldier receives for his death is a 21 gun salute after months of fighting and sacrifice, not to mention killing numerous other human beings; sins that can never be washed away from his soul. The chorus reflects the anti-war theme of the poem in the lines, “One, 21 guns/Lay down your arms, give up the fight/One, 21 guns/Throw up your arms into the sky/You and I”. Death in war offers no glory to the soldier or the nation, it is in fact a loss for the nation. The soldiers who make it back to their homeland alive also can never return to their normal way of living. The horrors witnessed by them in the war, like the death of their fellow soldiers, remains fresh and alive in their memories and cannot be forgotten (“Your faith walks on broken glass/And the hangover doesn’t pass/Nothing’s ever built to last/You’re in ruins”). The soldiers and their leaders in the army get traumatised by all the imposed and wrong decisions that they made in war, which seem like right decisions on the battlefield, but the reality of which comes across only after they return. Most of them realise its futility and lead lives filled with regret, carrying the burden of wrong decisions powered by greed and dishonesty and looking for forgiveness which never comes, (“Did you try to live on your own/When you burned down the house and home/Did you stand too close to the fire/Like a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone?”).
Therefore, it can be concluded that mankind has come a long way, from glorifying death on the battlefield to unmasking the “hollow lies”. The fame that martyrs receive can never be called real success because, although they fought hard, they fought for a lost cause. The triumph received in war added only temporarily to the greatness of any empire since they were all eventually burned down. While waging wars they might as well have sung “We’re building it up/To break it back down/We’re building it up/To burn it down” (‘Burn it down’ – Linkin Park) and it would have fitted the situation perfectly. Success does not lie in achieving greatness, conquering anything or earning hordes of money; it lies in leading one’s life the way one wants to lead it. A life without regrets is a successfully led life. When 2013 was withering away and the world was ready to breathe into 2014, ‘One Republic’ sang, “But, lately, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard/Said no more counting dollars we’ll be counting stars”. So in the future maybe we can all stop counting dollars and count the stars instead, for living one’s dream is the real success in life and happiness is the only thing worth striving for.
Emily Dickinson – Wikipedia
Green Day – Loudwire)