History > Emily Dickinson - "Much Madness is Divinest Sense"
 
The only confirmed photograph of Emily Dickinson who wrote Much Madness is divinest Sense.
The only confirmed photograph of Emily Dickinson circa 1847, from a daguerreotype. 
[Image courtesy Amherst College Library]

Emily Dickinson: Understanding the Poet

Was Emily Dickinson championing women's rights when
she wrote Much Madness is Divinest Sense?
 
"Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity." [The Atlantic Monthly, October 1891]
 

Emily Dickinson is one of America’s most recognized female poets of the nineteenth century.  Dickinson’s unique style of writing is what set her apart from most poets of her time. Her compressed and forceful wording made it possible for her to place more meaning into fewer words; this is seen in Dickinson’s poem, “Much Madness is Divinest Sense.” At first glance, Dickinson’s poem seems misleadingly short and simple with only eight lines and an obvious theme of madness versus sanity; however, on closer analysis the poem stands open to several interpretations. One explanation is that “Much Madness is Divinest Sense” has an underlying theme of rebellion.

 

Much Madness is divinest Sense-
To a discerning Eye-
Much Sense-the starkest Madness-
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail-
Assent- and you are sane-
Demur- you’re straightway dangerous-
And handled with a Chain-

 

To understand Dickinson’s poem, “Much Madness is Divinest Sense,” we must first put both her life and her era in context with her writing. Dickinson spent almost all her life in her birthplace, Amherst, Massachusetts.  She was born in 1830, the middle child of Edward Dickinson, a prominent lawyer who was active in civic affairs, and who also had a reputation as a dictatorial husband and a tyrannical father. Dickinson once wrote that when her father spoke, her mother, "Trembled, obeyed, and was silent."  Dickinson’s reading material was censored; much of her knowledge of the outside world came from books that were slipped into the house by her older brother. When she was seventeen, Dickinson was sent to South Hadley Female Academy, latter called Mount Holyoke College.  She did not adjust to the strict religious atmosphere and returned home within the year. After that, Dickinson gradually began to withdraw from social activities and eventually stopped leaving her home at all, remaining in her father’s house as a recluse until her death in 1886. Nonetheless, it is believed that Dickinson kept in contact through letters with a circle of friends and extended family.  It is guessed that “Much Madness is Divinest Sense” was written in 1862, which is considered to be during her creative peak period from 1858-1862. This was during a time when the nineteenth century woman had many limitations.

“Much Madness is Divinest Sense” demonstrates an anger and battle against the limits imposed by the authoritarian male upon the nineteenth century intellectual female. Although Dickinson does not actually say that she is rebelling against “the Majority,” the reader gets the impression that she has thought about it.  Dickinson begins with the lines, “Much Madness is Divinest Sense- / To a discerning Eye-.“ These two lines exhibit Dickinson’s rebellion against not only the men who make the rules, but the women who blindly accept them. She is sarcastically referring to “Madness” as the insanity of the conventions of society which supposedly make the  “Divinest Sense” and are delightfully accepted by the proper empty-headed society woman who should have been capable of seeing the problem if she truly had a “discerning Eye-.” This theory of rebellion is supported by Dickinson’s recluse lifestyle in which she did not associate with the women of her family’s social circle.

In lines 3-5, “Much Sense-the starkest Madness- / ‘Tis the Majority / In this, as All, prevail-/,” Dickinson sarcastically describes the expected lifestyle of a woman in the nineteenth century as “Much Sense-the starkest Madness-.” She also uses the word “Majority,” a legal term, to tell us who has all the power over women. The power is mockingly held by “All,” actually meaning only the men and lawmakers.  During her lifetime, a woman seldom went to college; instead it was understood that she would remain under her father’s rule until she married; and then she was dominated by her husband.  Her position in life was to take care of her family.  Women had few rights; it was presumed that the men would handle everything.  Dickinson’s use of upper case letters for both “Majority” and “All” is a subtle reminder that the “majority” and “all” did not truly rule, instead only the men ruled. Dickinson rebelled against the majority rule by isolating herself from society, and then expressing her opinions to her few friends by sending them her poems.

Dickinson warns of the consequences of not following what the “Majority,” the males, defined as acceptable. She writes, “Assent- and you are sane-/Demur- you’re straightway dangerous-/And handled with a Chain-“  Dickinson alerts the reader that by agreeing to the “Majority” rule, or “Assent,” one would be determined “sane,”  therefore be safe and acceptable. When the nineteenth century woman acted as required, she was accepted by society.  However, a woman who veers off the path designed for her is “straightway dangerous” and needs to be controlled.  Consequently, if you object to the expectations of “All,” you need to be controlled or “handled with a Chain.”  The use of the word “Chain” conjures up images of confinement, therefore we can assume that the consequences can be severe.  Again the author uses an upper case letter for the word “Chain” implying a hidden meaning.  Perhaps Dickinson was negatively referring to being “handled” or controlled by marriage, or worse, in an insane asylum.

There are varied interpretations of the motivation for Dickinson’s way of life. Perhaps the poet’s recluse lifestyle was her own choice, preferring seclusion over having a domineering husband like her father. Then again, possibly Dickinson had an unrequited love or a suitor who could not accept her as she was, so she hid from the world. Almost eighteen hundred poems were created by this secretive woman, but because her work was not published until after her death we can never truly know her intentions. I like to think that Dickinson’s poem, “Much Madness is Divinest Sense,” has a theme of rebellion, portraying a strong woman who knew what she wanted and was sarcastically poking fun at her contemporaries. [Author: Melissa Haug]