This poem reminds me of “Oh if remembering were forgetting” in that she’s again speaking of opposites. In that poem to remember is to forget while to forget is to remember. Here to win is to not know victory, at least not in the way the loser knows victory. I do think she’s a bit clearer in this poem than the previous, but regardless, I love that her mind works like this.
Ironically, for a poem which deals with the paradox of only the loser truly knowing what it is to win, this is a rather straightforward poem dealing with the desire and the struggle to succeed at something being inspired by what the participant imagines the “nectar” to taste like. One would think that the victor would know what that “nectar” tastes like since they, you know, are drinking it, but once something has been attained it changes from being the thing you so longed for to being something you now have – your relationship to it is altered and it no longer is motivating you.
It’s also interesting that this is one her her few published poems since she has struggled with wanting to be a respected artist but chooses to work in isolation which she deals with in “For every Bird a Nest“. In this one instance she has tasted that “nectar” but she seems to place much more importance on the desire and the struggle over the actual attainment of success.
Formally there are some clever moments in the poem, such as instead of spelling out the word ‘never’ she uses “ne’er” instead, as if to say those who never succeed can’t even finish the word ‘never’. Of more interest is in the second stanza with how she uses a slant rhyme with “today” and “Victory” to describe success, but in stanza’s one and three she uses a straight rhyme to describe the “defeated”. It’s as if the music that the “defeated” hears in stanza three is altered in stanza “two” and doesn’t sound as sweet. This is a wonderful moment and shows her at the top of her game.
Finally, the first line of the third stanza is worth noting because if you’re not paying attention you might think she’s still talking about the winner. When the line begins with “As he defeated” it’s easy to read that as ‘The winner defeated this other person’, but she’s actually referring to the loser, the “he [whom has been] defeated”. This is another clever trick because it shows how winning has slipped away from the loser – we at first think we are with the winner but then realize we are with the loser as if victory has slipped away from us and we now are “agonized” by the sounds of “The distant strains of triumph”. But because she is playing with whom is being referred to here, by going back to how the rhyme is altered in the second stanza for the winner, we know that those “distant strains of triumph” sound much different to the winner. Emily is able to put is in both points of view at once by subtly playing with the grammar.
Wonderful poem and good on the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Union who chose to publish this poem on April 27, 1864.