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.

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...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Dickinson’s poems often employ ambiguity. Most accomplished writers realize that to allow ambiguity to exist in their works is to invite the reader to come to their own conclusions about the meaning of the work. In this way, the reader takes part in the writing. The story or the poem is not just the author’s experience—it is also a mirror reflecting the reader’s life. Dickinson was aware of this, and her ability to leave things unexplained is a mark of high literary capability and understanding. In this poem, Dickinson uses many words that are ambiguous in meaning, such as “madness,” “Sense,” “divinest,” “discerning,” and “starkest.”

Suggestion goes hand in hand with ambiguity. By using ambiguous words, Dickinson sets up an environment in which she can point to situations without completely stating them. In “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense,” there is the suggestion of rebellion, although Dickinson never comes straight out and declares it. There is also the suggestion of feminism, even if she was not thinking in those terms. She was aware of the limitations imposed on her because she was female, but she never mentions this outright. The reader might also infer that she herself leans toward those who think in terms of madness, as she grants them a benefit of the divine.

One of the most prevalent poetic forms that Dickinson uses in this poem is...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Aiken, Conrad, “Emily Dickinson,” in The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism since 1890, edited by Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells, University of Michigan Press, 1964.

Bates, Arlo, “Miss Dickinson’s Poems,” in The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism since 1890, edited by Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells, University of Michigan Press, 1964.

Bloom, Harold, Emily Dickinson, Chelsea House, 1999, p. 11.

Carmen, Bliss, “A Note on Emily Dickinson,” in The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism since 1890, edited by Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells, University of Michigan, 1964, p. 63....

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1800s: The first women’s rights convention is held in Seneca Falls, New York. Several years later, in Rochester, Susan B. Anthony registers and votes, stating that the 14th amendment gives her that right. Several days later she is arrested. At her trial, the judge does not allow her to testify on her own behalf, dismisses the jury, rules her guilty, and fines her $100, which she does not pay.

1900s: The Equal Rights Amendment bans sex discrimination in employment and education. Shortly after, Shirley Chisholm becomes the first black American to run for president. In 1974, Ella Grasso becomes the first woman governor.

Today: The women’s rights movement has spread internationally, with United States women supporting causes in China, India, Africa, Afghanistan, and other countries. Women in Congress are still outnumbered: 9 out of 100 are women senators, 47 out of 436 are representatives.

1800s: The Civil War frees slaves, but more than 600 thousand people are killed in the battles.

1900s: During the twentieth century, America becomes involved in five separate wars, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam, Korean, and Gulf Wars, with a total of more than 200 thousand casualties.

Today: The twenty-first century begins with an unexpected attack by terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. This attack precipitates the...

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Find a complete collection of Dickinson’s poems that contains a subject or category classification of her poetry. Choose at least five poems that could be interpreted as focusing on issues of self, identity, oppression, or some other topic that could be taken as a feminist concern. Write a paper as if you were a feminist theorist studying these particular poems.

The treatment of those who were deemed insane was a topic often discussed during the nineteenth century. Research the history of the asylums that existed in the United States during this time period, especially those in New England, focusing mainly on the female population that inhabited these institutions. What was the most significant malady? What were the treatments?

The film Beautiful Dreamer (1991) captures a portion of the lives of Dr. Maurice Burke and Walt Whitman as they come together in an attempt to look at insanity in a new and creative way. Watch this movie, then watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, another movie that deals with people who have been deemed insane. Compare the themes in these two movies. After watching both videos, write your own poem dealing with some aspect of madness and sanity.

Dickinson wrote hundreds of letters in her lifetime. In most of these letters, she included one or more poems. Pretend that you are Dickinson and that you have sent a poem to one of your closest friends. Make up a letter to go with this poem....

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

There is a wide selection of audiotapes, recorded by various artists, of Dickinson’s poetry. Julie Harris reads from Dickinson’s poetry and letters in a tape called Emily Dickinson—Self-Portrait. Harris won a Tony Award in 1977 for her portrayal of Dickinson in the one-woman play The Belle of Amherst.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1966) contains the short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” in which a young man finds himself invited to a dinner party at a state institution for the insane. During the course of the meal, the so-called keepers of the institution tell the guest about the procedures of imprisonment that must be maintained to keep the insane people under control. As the dinner proceeds, the guest starts questioning the sanity of the keepers themselves. Poe explores the thin line between sanity and madness, a topic that nineteenth-century society found fascinating.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays were one of the great influences in...

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