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New Criticism is a literary theory that places emphasis upon close reading of poetry, rather than a reader's response, as a means of interpretation. Dependent upon this interpretation are certain elements: particularization, irony and ambiguity, and meaning that transcends intention.
According to New Criticism, the particular speaker and auditor are essential to the interpretation of a poem. Tone, the attitude of the speaker, the situation, and the particular language are indications of meaning. But, the intentions of a poet are found through an analysis rhyme, rhythm, and meter and other technical tools; the poem also is interpreted as an autonomous text without consideration of the social or historical setting.
An interpretation of "Much Madness is Divinest Sense," using a paradigm from New Criticism, then, would not include Dickinson's failure to be heard in her patriarchal society, or the rigid norms of her New England community.
Interpreting "Much Madness is divinest Sense" from its rhyme and rhythm and other technical tools would examine the lines that are stopped short by dashes, the repetition of the word "Sense," juxtaposed with "Madness." The clashing of rhythms creates a tone of incongruity and doubt.
- Irony, Paradox, and Ambiguity
With poetic language, multiple meanings are inherent; however, the reader must be careful not to seek intricacies that do not exist, proponents of New Criticism warn. So, with this point in mind, a New Criticism of Dickinson's poem would inspect the paradox of insanity being sanity, "Much Madness is divinest Sense." And, of course, their is ambiguity in the attainment of meanings for such words as "Majority" and "Chain."
- Meaning transcends intention
According to Yvor Winters, American poet and literary critic,
The force of a poem consists in its author's attempt to come to terms with an experience and to order thereby a meaning for his own consciousness.
Winters contends that even poets do not know the full meaning of their poems until they are completed. It is the total poem which then connects with local and particular things that supplies much of its meaning. With this contention in mind, then, Dickinson's poem is given added meaning as it is read in its completeness. For instance, Dickinson may have written her poem because she was worried about her own sanity; yet the poem's meaning transcends this intention as its theme suggests that people who dissent are often considered mad and are shunned, too.
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