Much Madness Is Divinest Sense by Emily Dickinson

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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

Although there is little direct criticism of “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense,” the range of comments over the years signifies how Dickinson’s reputation as a poet has grown. The Recognition of Emily Dickinson, edited by Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells, contains many critical essays on the writing of Dickinson in general, which collectively demonstrate the increased appreciation of her writing over time. It begins with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who writes, in the preface to Dickinson’s first published collection in 1890:

the verses of Emily Dickinson belong emphatically to what Emerson has long since called ‘the Poetry of the Portfolio,’—something produced absolutely without the thought of publication, and solely by way of the expression of the writer’s own mind.

Higginson believed that it was because of this attitude that Dickinson had the freedom of “daring thoughts.” Three years after the publication of this collection, Arlo Bates, a novelist and editor of a Boston newspaper, writes that “there is hardly a line in the entire volume and certainly not a stanza, which cannot be objected to upon the score of technical imperfection.” He softens his criticism by then adding that there also was hardly a line, “which fails to throw out some gleam of genuine original power, of imagination, and of real emotional thought.”

Jumping ahead to the twentieth century, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Conrad Aiken, who edited some of Dickinson’s poems, had this to say about her writing:

Once one adjusts oneself to the spinsterly angularity of the [poetic] mode, its lack of eloquence or rhetorical speed, its naive and often prosaic directness, one discovers felicities of thought and phrase on every page. The magic is terse and sure.

Archibald MacLeish, a well-known, American, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, offered his evaluation of Dickinson’s poetry as it was studied in the 1960s. He writes that Dickinson was one of the most important modern poets, despite the fact that “her forms are among the simplest of which the English language is capable.” These remarks were not meant to be derogatory. Rather, he continues, saying form for Dickinson was not the basis of her poems. “In Emily’s poems, however, things are otherwise arranged.” He then praises Dickinson for her imagery , not the kind of images that are visible through the eye but rather the mental images that she constructs to represent abstract feelings. To make his comments clearer, MacLeish uses, as an example, a line from Dickinson: “that white sustenance / despair.” He refers to this ability of hers to make abstraction appear in picture form as images that are presented “directly to the imagination by the suggestion of words.” MacLeish ends by calling Dickinson’s tone “wholly spontaneous” and writes that “it...

(The entire section is 690 words.)