Much Madness Is Divinest Sense Essays and Criticism
by Emily Dickinson

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Allusion to Madness

Many literary critics and literary historians believe that Ralph Waldo Emerson influenced Dickinson. Knowing even the vaguest details of Dickinson’s reclusive life reinforces this conclusion, as Emerson encouraged a pulling into oneself by limiting social contacts. Emerson also, as espoused in his essay “Self-Reliance,” advocated individualism. Reading Dickinson’s poem “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense,” with Emerson’s writing in mind, influences the reader to interpret this poem in a way that might illustrate a rebellious nature in Dickinson. Between the lines, the reader can envision a young poet who is determined to defy the majority rule and is willing to fight for her individuality. However, when this poem is read with some of Dickinson’s own works in mind, the analysis takes on a different tone. Could it be literal madness that Dickinson is referring to and not just a general allusion to society’s labeling a nonconformist as being mad? In other words, was Dickinson afraid that she might have a mental illness? Was she afraid of going insane? If this is true, is the emotion behind this poem fear rather than rebellion? The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950), edited by Thomas H. Johnson, contains a subject index in the back pages. A thorough search of this index results in no mention of words such as rebellion, individuality, or self-reliance. Yet these are the concepts that Dickinson supposedly learned from reading Emerson, and these are the themes that a reader could easily conclude are emphasized in Dickinson’s poem “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense.” Emerson also wrote that a person should trust their own thoughts. The problem, he believed, was that people who took the time to listen to their thoughts, often forgot them, or worse, were coerced out of them once they left the confines and privacy of their home and went out into society. Society, for its own benefit, seeks conformity. Society has an aversion, he wrote, to free thinkers and creators, as it maintains its power through regulated custom. Society functions on naming things, Emerson believed. The things that society deemed bad were not necessarily inherently evil; it was, after all, just a name applied to something that society feared would cause trouble for the majority. In Emerson’s mind, the only bad things in life were whatever denied him the right to believe in, and think for, himself. By taking these concepts of Emerson’s and applying them as a background for Dickinson’s poem, the reader will find an almost perfect match. Dickinson’s poem implies the same sentiments. For instance, Dickinson writes that the majority defines the term “madness” and judges it to be wrong. The majority dictates the rules, and those rules demand conformity. To go against the majority means the perpetrator will be punished. In other words, to be a self-thinker means to be eventually locked up in chains. Is it no wonder that, as Emerson wrote, the conformist has a much easier road? However, Dickinson’s poem takes up the issue of madness. Why does she use this word? Although Emerson mentions that taking the road of the nonconformist may not be easy, he does not refer to madness as a consequence. Returning to the subject index of the collection of Dickinson’s poems, one finds many references to madness. The word “madness” itself is listed, as well as references to a haunted brain, a cleaving in the brain, and a funeral in the brain. Subject listings under “soul” include storms within the soul, a numbness of the soul, and a paralysis of the soul. With much more emphasis in Dickinson’s writing on the subject of mental strain as opposed to individuality or self-reliance, the true theme of this poem may well be the fear the author had of being deemed mad. Dickinson’s references to madness appear in several of her poems. In her poem “It Struck Me— Every Day—” (number 362), she discusses a storm that both appears to be present every...

(The entire section is 5,115 words.)