How does Emily Dickinson reflect Romantic thinking in her writing?

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perfectsilence eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While Emily Dickinson is not typically considered a Romantic poet, a lot of her work nevertheless exhibits some of the most striking characteristics of Romanticism.  One of the key components of Romantic poetry is a focus on emotion and individualism.  Two specific examples of Dickinson's poetry that embody these features are "Much Madness is divinest Sense" and "I'm nobody!  Who are you?"

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 -

Dickinson's belief in the value of the individual is on full display here.  She sets up a paradox, to be mad is to be sane, and then resolves it through a critique of the concept of majority rule.  Dickinson makes it clear that "a discerning eye" understands that the majority cannot be trusted, and that it shows greater sense to go against the majority.  To the poet, those within the majority believe they are right because they are in the majority, whereas Dickinson suggests that, by going against the majority and focusing on one's own feelings instead of what is socially acceptable, the individual is actually the pinnacle of sanity.

Dickinson presents her belief in the sacred nature of the individual in an even more straightforward way in "I'm Nobody! Who are you?

 

I'm nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!

They'd advertise -- you know!

 

How dreary to be somebody!

How public like a frog

To tell one's name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

 

Once again, Dickinson affirms the importance of the individual, the "nobody" to society.  Her narrator presents themselves as a nobody as well, but warns the reader to not tell because they would become public spectacle.  This is another instance in which her stance on the majority is clear.  To Dickinson, the majority is more concerned with outing the perceived "nobodies" of the world than they are with truly contributing to the world in a positive way.  The poet then compares one who would be considered "somebody" to a frog, and the admiring society to a bog, to further cement her stance on the true value of public opinion.

Dickinson sets herself apart from her contemporaries in a number of ways.  Because of her ability to transcend rules and standards, she is difficult to classify.  This is, of course, right in line with the perspective she presents in her work.  She is not one of the crowd; she is the mad outsider, like all truly sane people are.  She is nobody, and because of that she is one of the most important, authentic somebodies of all.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that a case can be made for Dickinson representing Romantic thinking in a couple of ways.  The first would be that her life as one that sought privacy helps to enhance the subjectivity that is both intrinsic to her poetry as well as the tenets of Romanticism.  Dickinson did not believe in adhering to socially accepted norms.  She sought individuality and her work places a high primacy on the idea of subjective experience.  These are Romantic tendencies.  At the same time, I think that one can find a wide sense of thought and reflection which is a part of her writing.  Dickinson demonstrated an understanding that was not afraid of contemplating challenging issues such as death, identity, and primary motivation in consciousness.  These are conditions that are found in her poetry, but also in Romantic thought.  Romantic thinkers easily pondered the larger issues of being.  Another Romantic idea that is evident in the poetry of Emily Dickinson is that she demonstrated a healthy disregard for the technical aspects of poetry.  Her work features a liberation from what is standard understanding of poetry and poetic devices:

[In Dickinson's poetry] there is a great deal of grammatical irregularity; standard punctuation is largely replaced by the dash; nouns and verbs are sometimes used interchangeably; normal syntax is often disrupted...

Wordsworth and other Romantic poets were more driven by the feeling in emotion and sought to break free from established "rules" of poetry.  The elimination of "ornamentation" and the desire to establish poetry as the "spontaneous overflow of emotions" is of the utmost of importance to Romanticism.  Dickinson embodies this in her work.

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