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13 December 2015

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

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.
                                        F620 (1863)  J435

This popular poem is a gem, from word choice to line placement and to meter and rhyme. Dickinson's transition from the abstract to the political/sociological on a personal level leads to a surprisingly dystopic ending.

The poem can be read as two enjambed quatrains. The first makes the often-quoted claim that discerning people find great sense in what seems like madness to most people. As a logical corollary, they find what the majority finds sensible to be Madness.

State Lunatic Hospital, Worcester, MA 1847
The setting and landscaping were designed for
peacefulness and wholesomeness. 
        What saves this reversal from being platitudinous is not only the intervening line with its multisyllabic 'discerning' but the adjectives. The Sense is 'divinest'; the Madness, 'starkest'. The contrast is as extreme as possible. Dickinson isn't saying how someone might be crazy like a fox, or how there is sometimes truth in folly. No, 'Much' of Madness is divinest sense; 'Much' of Sense is starkest madness. That is a strong indictment of the majority who get it all wrong but nonetheless 'prevail'.
        It takes a 'discerning Eye' to recognize this madness/sense paradox. Poets are among our most discerning eyes, and Dickinson certainly put herself to the task. But there is real risk involved. In the second quatrain Dickinson says that if you oppose majority views, even by a simple demurral, you will end up in chains. These could easily be the prisoner's or the madman's chains, but could also be the invisible restraints on the madwoman in the attic – the dotty relative who is never allowed out.
        Dickinson builds up to this dystopic vision through a variety of poetic techniques. Two sets of parallel constructions set up oppositions. In the first, 'Much Madness' is echoed and opposed by 'Much Sense'. Both are spondees, providing extra emphasis. 'Madness' and 'Sense' are presented in opposite order: the first line has Madness then Sense; the third, Sense, then Madness. The tightness of this construction is at odds with the wide disparity between the two – divinest Sense and starkest Madness. This tension and disparity contribute to the chilling outcome for to avoid being deemed a danger to society you must go along with what seems unmitigated folly.
"Reasons for Admission" to West
Virginia's Trans-Allegheny Lunatic
Asylum, 1864 - 1889
        This leads to the second set of parallel construction. While the parallel oppositions, Assent and Demur, seem much less drastic than the first stanza formulation, Dickinson's switch from the third person to the second makes the stakes personal. It is your ethics and courage she's talking about here. To be considered 'sane' by the majority you have to assent, or as the Dickinson Lexicon would have it, 'concede' or 'conform in practice'. If, one the other hand, you feel compelled to demur, you will pay a very stiff price.

Dickinson would have probably read many accounts of the horrors of Bedlam and other institutions where people were treated brutally. Sometimes their only offence was to have been inconvenient to family. A perfectly sane person could be forcibly restrained and hauled off to a lifetime commitment. Fortunately, by Dickinson's time there was a strong prison reform movement in the United States. Unfortunately, it was still very easy for someone to be forcibly commited for such reasons as 'Imaginary female trouble', 'Over action of the mind', 'Grief', and 'Hard study' (see illustration).

Some other nice poetic touches include Dickinson's use of alliteration and assonance. For 'D' alliteration there are divinest, discerning, Demur, dangerous, and handled. For 'M': Much Madness, Much, Madness, and Majority. There are plenty of smooth-sounding 'S' sounds, too: Madness, divinest, Sense, discerning, Sense, starkest, Madness, this, Assent, sane, and straightway. The last half of the poem is sprinkled with long 'A' sounds: prevail, sane, straightway, dangerous, and chain. All these repeated sounds help knit the poem together in one very cohesive – and damning – piece.


  1. Excellent analysis of both sound and sense!

    ED never wrote directly about the Civil War in her poetry -- but it appears in images, colors and metaphors. I think that this is a Civil War poem. The year 1863 was the height of the war. The Battle of Antietam was September 17, 1862. December 1862 to the end of 1863 saw the battles of Fredericksburg (2 battles), Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Manassas, Chickamauga and Chattanooga -- just to name a few principal battles. What is starker madness, masquerading as sense, than war?

    1. Great insight. I agree -- the war must figure strongly in her impulse here. Now I wonder what happened to the anti-war folks.

  2. Great analysis! Just discovered your blog and am looking forward to reading more of it.

  3. One of my favorite poems. Thank you for sharing the asylum's reasons for admission. Hard not to laugh maniacally now. :)

  4. Superb Analysis. Although the explanation seems loaded with technical terms; that are quite unknown for people like me who haven't been to literature class; yet reading your explanation of ED's poems is a real pleasure and learning.

  5. Horace ends Ars Poetica (19 BC) with a caricature of the “Mad Poet”: dirty long hair, odd public behavior, lust for recognition. Some writers think mental illness creates great poets, others that it harms more than helps. In any case, many fine poets, including ED, suffered bipolar disorder. Somehow she coped and composed masterpiece poems for nearly forty years.

    This widely anthologized poem, ‘Much Madness is divinest Sense –’, proposes outer “starkest Madness” is often inner “divinest Sense”, an overworked conceit. And where’s ED’s trademark ambiguity?

    Last Lines 7-8 suggest something stung ED, set off an atypical tirade disguised as reason. Did a whiff of local gossip about the mad woman of Amherst drift her way? Did Higginson let slip a hint of prejudice about his “half-cracked poet”? Whatever it was, ED’s not telling. There’s her trademark ambiguity.

    In her manuscript, Line 5 suggested an alternative verb, “prevails” instead of “prevail”. The word “Majority”, usually singular, becomes plural: “Majority prevail”. Apparently, she faults each individual in that “Majority”, not just the singular group. Also in Line 5 she elides “always” to “all”, presumably to preserve iambic trimeter of the line.