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...
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