The date that “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense” was written has been guessed as 1862, but nobody knows for sure because the poem was not published until almost thirty years later, in 1890, after Dickinson’s death. Her poetry was first introduced to the public through the efforts of friends and relatives who discovered her poems, corrected her punctuation, designated titles, and modified some of Dickinson’s meanings so as not to offend her audience. It was more than forty years before her original poems were handed over to the United States Library of Congress, where they were thoroughly examined and Dickinson’s original versions were restored. The only editing that was done for the later publications was to assign location numbers to each full piece as well as to every poem fragment. “Much Madness” was given the number 435.
“Much Madness Is Divinest Sense” was published in Dickinson’s first collection, which was simply called Poems (1890). This poem stands wide open to a variety of interpretations. It can be said to represent her sense of humor, or rebellion, as well as her sense of frustration as an intelligent female living in a world that was dominated by dictatorial males. The poem can also reflect her anger, for although she was described as quiet spoken and demure, Dickinson did not hold back her strongest sentiments when it came to writing them. Read in another view, the poem could be taken to express Dickinson’s fear of literal madness.
The poem is deceptively brief and at first glance appears simple. However, within its eight lines is hidden a universal theme that runs so deep that more than a hundred years later its significance is still fresh, its impact is still sharp, and its expressed emotion is still controversial. This poem is so contemporary that Robert Hass, former United States poet laureate (1995–1997), chose to read “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense” to President and Mrs. Clinton at a celebratory meeting in the White House in 1998.