This poem’s message, carried forth in a few different metaphors, is that those who succeed never truly appreciate it—it is only those who fail, or who lack something, that can truly appreciate how wonderful it would be if they did succeed. The dilemma presented by this poem is that it is not just those who strive for longer before succeeding that can appreciate it more, it is only those who “ne’er succeed” who can count it “sweetest” to succeed. This means, then, that no one ever truly appreciates success to its full desert, because those who could, once offered the chance, lose the ability to.
The next metaphor changes the scope of the poem slightly; it is no longer just about success, but about want and desire, too. Here, for someone “To comprehend a nectar,” that is, to truly understand all the wonderful aspects of nectar, and to be satisfied by it, not just to scarf it down, “Requires sorest need.” That is, only the starving can truly appreciate food. Again, we have the dilemma that as soon as one has their first bite, they are no longer starving, and they quickly lose their ability to appreciate it.
The final two stanzas elucidate one last, more extended, metaphor. Here Dickinson has taken us to a battlefield, and she compares the perspectives of the winning and losing sides. Not only can the soldiers in the winning army not feel the same appreciation of victory as the losing soldiers, but they cannot even truly understand what it is. Those soldiers left “defeated” and “dying” on the battlefield, however, can, as they must listen to the other side’s celebrations of their victory.
Fame, or success, and their lack—failure—often occurs as a theme in Dickinson’s poetry. Ironically, this poem, extolling the virtues of failure, was one of her very few poems to be published (although after heavy editorializing). Yet while this poem’s publication may complicate the issue, it can still be read as being largely about Dickinson’s own failure to publish her poetry, even though she removes the poem and its failures from herself by using only third-person narration and an distant, unemotional tone.
Although during her lifetime her poems were not published, there was something to be gained in this ostensible failure, and that is what she explores in this poem. Beyond just liking paradoxes, Dickinson regularly sees pain as having the positive side of adding to one’s experience, and this is another example of that paradox. Not only can a successfully published poet not understand the true joy of that publication, as the winning soldier cannot, but they also lose their ability to empathize with failure generally, as the victorious soldier strides off to loud fanfare, completely ignoring the dead and dying on the other side of the battle field. Nor can they see the true beauty of success, and thus, they lose part of their emotional vocabulary for their poems. In this way the experience of success may actually lead to less truly successful poems—they may be published, but they are not as profound, or so Dickinson seems to believe.
This can be read as a reason that Dickinson did not try harder to get her poems published, although it is more likely that had to do with her repeated failures to do so, and the agonizing changes editors made, even when her poems were accepted. This poem, then, is more of a portrait of the frustrating ironies of life, rather than a single extended metaphor for the good side of her failure to publish, for the examples in the poem show that true happiness cannot be ultimately available, if one cannot appreciate success unless one does not have it.
Dickinson is careful to avoid directly discussing the successes or failures of publication, just as she is careful to keep herself out of the poem as a character or even a visible speaker. The opening two lines deal with success directly, followed by two metaphors; starvation and loss in battle. Of these, the battle metaphor gets by far the majority of the lines, which seems to emphasize the fact that success often requires the failure of another.