Much Madness Is Divinest Sense by Emily Dickinson

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Civil War
While Dickinson wrote this poem, chances are the Civil War was in progress. She never mentions this war in her poems; however, in her letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she comes in contact with the effects of battle. She wrote quite often to Higginson, including during the time that he served in the war. She also corresponded with him after he was injured, while he was in the hospital, so she was aware of the pain and suffering on a somewhat personal level.

Calvinism and Transcendentalism
Calvinism was the dominant religion in New England in Dickinson’s time. The Calvinists believed in a church-dominated society, the absolute sovereignty of God’s will, and punishment for sins. They emphasized materialism and logic, from which the Puritan ethic of hard work is derived. They also believed that salvation only came through faith in God, and if chosen by God, one could not resist. This religion promoted the group over the individual, and concrete reality over imagination or intuition. At a certain point in the young adult’s life, a statement of conversion to these beliefs was common practice.

Dickinson, in her letters and her poetry, makes allusions to these Calvinist beliefs, as well as her rebellion against them. She refused to convert. Her concepts of God did not match those of the church, despite her father’s efforts to convince Dickinson— her father was an orthodox Calvinist.

Instead, Dickinson turned to nature and her own instincts and intuitions about the sacredness of this life. Most critics agree that she was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), an essayist, philosopher, and poet, who proposed an alternative philosophy. Emerson helped found the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalists believed that answers about this reality could be found by the individual in quiet meditations on nature. They promoted the individual and self-reliance. Emerson also encouraged everyone, especially those inclined to write, to live a hermit’s life, to withdraw from society in order not to be contaminated with the materialism and professed logic of the group.

Suffrage
The United States women’s suffrage movement began in the middle of the nineteenth century in the northeastern states. Women, such as Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone, discovered that when they spoke out for such reforms as the antislavery and temperance movements, they were told they had no voice. This attempt to silence them inspired the women to organize.

These early feminists, meeting for the first time as a group at the Seneca Falls Convention, held in New York State on July 20, 1848, made many demands for improvements in their status, the most controversial of all being the right to vote. At that time, they were more concerned with social, economic, legal, and educational issues. After the Civil War, when the Fifteenth Amendment offered suffrage only to black men, the suffrage movement went into crisis, as some women in the movement refused to support the new amendment, demanding that women be included. This caused a schism in the movement.

It was during this time, in 1869, that the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), headed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was created. One of its main focuses was a demand for a Sixteenth Amendment, which would give women the right to vote. This suffrage group became more radical, more vocal, and, therefore, more visible, thus addressing their issues to a wider audience of women. The more conservative organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded that same year, included Thomas Wentworth Higginson among its supporters, the essayist with whom Dickinson maintained a lifetime correspondence.

In 1890, four years after Dickinson’s death and the same year that her first book of poems was published, the two segments of the movement reunited into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Elizabeth Cady Stanton was elected president and Susan B. Anthony,...

(The entire section is 2,528 words.)