Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1114
Dickinson’s poem, “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense,” opens with a statement that immediately demands the reader’s attention. Dickinson employs her ironic, or contradictory, wit to the full text of this poem, beginning with the paradox in the first line. Questions that may arise with the first two words in this line might concern what she means by “madness.” Is Dickinson referring to insanity or anger? To complicate matters, Dickinson throws the reader off by adding the surprising two words at the end of this line, juxtaposing the first impressions with a contradictory second one. The reader might wonder if Dickinson is serious or if she is poking fun at someone or something. Is she enjoying her madness? Is she using madness to rise above a situation in which she feels uncomfortable or trapped? How can madness make sense? And why “divinest Sense?” Does she mean divine in the sense of being godly, or is she referring to something that is merely delightful?
Note the alliteration in this line. There is the double m in “much madness,” and the s at the end of the words “madness,” “is,” and “divinest.” Also, the word, “Sense,” has s at both the beginning and the end. So this initial line is not only catchy for its contradictory or rebellious twist in meaning, but the use of alliteration makes the line fun to read with the tongue slipping over all the s sounds.
The word “discerning” in the second line can be understood in a variety of ways. Discerning can mean discriminating in the sense of being cautious; or it can mean astute, or wise. It can also mean sensitive or even shrewd. Depending on the reader’s experience with, or attitude toward, madness, the poem can turn on the word “discerning.” The reader can interpret this poem as sarcastic, judgmental, or playful. Like all good literature, Dickinson’s poem offers space in which the reader can move around, bringing his or her emotions to the work and enjoying it not only through the author’s view of life but on a personal level as well.
In the third line, Dickinson almost completely turns the first line on its head, placing what was first last and vice versa. Again the line uses alliteration, with s appearing five times. And again there is ambiguity here, this time present in the word “starkest.” Does the poet mean bleak, harsh, or desolate? Or is she making reference to a sense of completeness? She can also be suggesting the adjective, plain.
By twisting the phrases around between lines one and three, Dickinson may simply be emphasizing her opening statement. She may also be saying that it does not take a lot of madness to make sense because even the starkest madness is understandable. However, she is stating that too much sense is the harshest madness of all.
With this line, there arises another question. What does she mean by “Sense?” Is this common sense? Is she implying sanity or rationality? These questions about the meaning of “Sense,” to which she is referring, actually make up the core of the whole poem. It is upon a definition of “Sense” that the poem is written, is it not? Does not the poet want the reader to think about who defines that which is referred to as sense?
It is lines four and five that offer a possible answer to these questions, in part, at least. “‘Tis the majority” who defines sanity and sense. This does not mean that their definition is correct. Dickinson is only implying that since the majority has the rule, “as All,” their definition is that which “prevails.” This might lead the reader’s thoughts to the question: What if madness was in the majority? Then, the next question might be, What is madness?
The word “Assent” implies abiding by or, in more oppressive terms, acquiescing. If the reader is familiar with details in Dickinson’s life, such as her domineering father and the small-town pressures of Christian conversion that Dickinson experienced in Amherst during her time, this word takes on stronger emotions. Dickinson was torn between her natural shyness, her sensitivity, and her innate sense of rebellion. Understanding these variant forces in her life helps the reader to appreciate the weight of the contradictions and emotional battles that she confronted. To give in to the dominant forces was to be declared sane, safe, and proper. If she assented, more than likely, she was also left alone, something that she craved.
This conflict is a universal one. It defines the relationship between parents and children; families and villages; tribes and states. To go along with the majority is to find peace, at least in some situations, but it is not always a comfortable peace. It is sometimes a peace that comes at a high price, the price of one’s own private sanity.
The use of the word “Demur” is fascinating. The word means to object, or protest. However, spelled with an additional e, “demure,” the word takes on nearly the opposite meaning of modest, or shy. “Demure” is a word that is often used in describing Dickinson’s personality. In the seventh line, however, she uses the word in contrast with “Assent.”
Immediately after using this word, she inserts a dash, which is sharp and pointed, almost weaponlike. If a person opposes the majority, he or she is held at bay, because to protest is to be more than just wrong, it is to be dangerous. The adjective that she uses in this line, “straightway,” reflects back to the straight form of the dash that precedes it; and it implies immediacy: no trial by peers, no justification. Whoever balks at the majority rule will be considered worse than a traitor. They will be denied any rights and quickly taken away. It is also interesting that when the language in line six (in which Dickinson mentions sanity) is compared to line seven, the latter is written with much more interesting words. This gives the reader a hint that Dickinson might enjoy leaning toward madness.
Line eight suggests that not only will the objector be declared insane and taken away, he or she will either be confined with chains or beaten with them. The word “handled” is again a bit ambiguous, but the sentiment is very clear: either all freedoms will cease to exist, or the perpetrator will feel pain. Whether chained or beaten, the picture is not very pleasant. It is so unpleasant that the poem suggests that one should take very seriously the attitude of madness, because the consequences can be severe.