‘Much Madness is divinest Sense’ by Emily Dickinson is a clever and insightful poem that was published along with the bulk of her poetry in the 1890s, after her death. This poem, like many others, deals with incredibly important themes. These include madness/sanity, society, and conformity.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by saying that there are many who are perceived as being mad but are in fact completely sane. They make the “divinest sense”. It’s not everyone who is going to be able to see the truth in this statement or in the fact that “starkest Madness” is found in many who seem sensible to the majority.
It is the fault of society, the speaker says, that the world is set up this way. It is too easy to fall into society’s norms and see anyone outside of those norms as mad or as a threat of some kind.
‘Much Madness is divinest Sense’ by Emily Dickinson is an eight-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not make use of a specific rhyme scheme although there are examples of half-rhyme as well as full-rhyme. For example, “Eye” at the end of line two and “Majority” at the end of line four is an example of half, or slant, rhyme. Then, “chain” and “sane” at the ends of lines six and eight are a perfect/full rhyme. Just like the rhyme scheme, there is no clear metrical pattern at play.
Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘Much Madness is divinest Sense’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Much” and “madness” in lines one and three as well as “Demur” and “dangerous” in line seven.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. For instance, line three which reads: “Much Sense – the starkest Madness” or line seven which reads: “Demur – you’re straightway dangerous”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There is a good example of the transition between lines four and five.
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
In the first lines of ‘Much Madness is divinest Sense’ the speaker begins by saying, paradoxically, that what seems mad is in fact the “divinest Sense,” or sanity. She knows that this is not going to make a lot of sense to most people. In fact, she says, the vast majority of society is not going to understand this at all. They are trained, through the rules of those around them, to see one way of being as correct and other as incorrect. They are unable to tell, as she and a select few are, that the sanity they think they’re experiencing is in fact madness.
A reader will immediately, upon beginning this piece, notice Dickinson’s use of capitalization and em-dashes. These are integral parts of her verse that scholars are consistently divided on the meaning of. It is generally thought that the dashes are indications of pauses or moments in which a reader can consider, more fully, a line they’ve just read.
The capital letters are used, most likely, to draw the reader’s attention and add emphasis to already important words.
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
The next lines continue in the same way. They express the speaker’s opinion that society has corrupted our ability to see what is in truth sane and insane. She believes that it is the fault of the “Majority”. This is the group who believe in maintaining the status quo, that the world is the way it is. She says that those who “Assent” to the rules of society believe themselves to be “sane”.
But, if you go against this, if you “demur” then you’re “straightway dangerous”. This leads to physical and metaphorical “Chain[s]” coming into play. A reader should consider while reading this piece who, besides the mentally ill, Dickinson might be considering when she thinks of those society deems “insane”. Who, in her time and the contemporary period, “Demur” from society’s rules?