Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Much madness is divinest sense" by Emily Dickinson

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye,
Much sense, the starkest madness.
'Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevail:
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, you're straightway dangerous
And handled with a chain.

I was struck first with just how accurate this poem is. History has many instances of when this idea of "majority rules" has defined madness whether ruling that the earth is flat or more serious issues involving race or religion. I particularly like the last two lines, "Demur, you're straightway dangerous/ And handled with a chain." The imagery is particularly vivid and clearly articulates just how little we, the human race, hate to be disagreed with.

Dickson has managed to more than simply frame a universal truth; the very way she uses her words is beautiful. Just the first line, "Much madness is the divinest sense," slides off the tongue beautifully, helped especially by repetition of the "s" sound at the end of most the words. She continues the pattern in the third line, "Much sense, the starkest madness." The similar sounds connect the first and third line along with the similar sentence structure. They are different most the poem in other ways, too. The whole poem is written in iambic meter. Most of it has three feet per line, but the first, third (and also seventh) lines have four. This, the "thesis" of the poem, is set then set apart. The seventh line, written with four feet and repeating the "s" sound with "straightaway dangerous," connects back to the beginning. It also functions a little like the second line, which, having only three feet and no "s" ending, surprises the reader, breaking the stereotypical flow of poems. The seventh line, set between two tetrameter, rhyming lines, also provide that jerking contrast. The entire poem functions in a similar way: the first three lines work like a stand-alone poem, and the last do the same, in the same structure and patter, but the middle to trip up the tongue, repeating not the "s" sound the "a" of majority, all, as, and prevail. The result is a poem that feels like is should flow, but that purposely does not.

Why would Dickinson want her poem to feel uncomfortable? Because she talking about madness and dissent! Her very poem is a proof of concept. The message is "divinest sense," but the structure is strange enough to make some question her writing abilities. She is breaking away from conventional poetry which either focus on a specific structure or is complete free-verse. She has a structure; it just isn't one that her readers are used to or comfortable with. This "sense" is as discontenting as "madness" goes against regular poetry. And the reader feels it and wants to chain it up in a specific, usual structure. It feels uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to read.

And yet, Dickinson's poem is powerful. Once one has come to understand its structure, saying the first three lines is pleasing, even fun. And there is something powerful in the last, and only, rhyme between "sane" and "chain." It ends to poem with such solid sound that the prior discomfort is immediately forgotten. "Assent, and you are sane;/ Demur, you're straightway dangerous/ And handled with a chain." Dickinson could make anything sound profound with such talent.


  1. This is great. I think you capture what Dickinson is trying to say and you hear her. Good job!

  2. Well Done! Couldn't have said it any better :D