Emily Dickinson was a brilliant poet who challenged traditional conventions and forced readers into dark yet captivating worlds in which she explored themes such as death, religion, individuality, longing and madness. She was very perceptive of the world around her and yet cautious about her presentation to others. Today she would most likely be diagnosed with a mental or mood disorder (but who isn’t these days). I find her quirkiness intriguing and her honesty refreshing. I’ve always been a fan of darker poetry and literature in general, being an avid reader of Edgar Allan Poe and T.S. Eliot, so bleak or insane characters are very near and dear to me.
I never was really interested in Dickinson’s poetry until I closely dissected it in a literature class. I absolutely loved “He fumbles at my Soul”. I previously knew her poems were edited in some instances but was shocked and appalled to discover how many of them had been brutally mutilated and erased beyond all recognition!
As a poet I am very protective over my poems and in some cases I remember exactly where I was and what I was thinking about when I wrote them. I sense she is the same way. Poetry was her obscure diary, a clever way to vent frustrations or ideas that only clever and imaginative people would understand or appreciate. I will show my appreciation by giving a close reading of “Much Madness is the divinest Sense.” Dickinson begins with a powerful statement, “Much Madness is divinest Sense- / To a discerning Eye-” She is saying that madness is something that can be used, a “sense” or a tool to interpret the world around us. She is referring to the usefulness of seeing the world in a different way, from another perspective. Some things that are perceived as madness really are not madness at all, just different ideas or outlooks. This would support the theory that Dickinson was closely related to the transcendentalist movement. Many people would view the transcendentalist outlook on nature to be slightly mad. She adds that it is a “discerning eye” that can recognize the power of a different perspective.
Dickinson goes on to say that “Much sense-the starkest Madness- / ‘Tis the Majority.” She’s saying that most people think the same and try to make sense of everything. She essentially calls “the Majority” insane. These lines are left ambiguous on purpose and I found it difficult to decide whether they were to be included with the first two lines or the last four so I interpreted them on their own.
“In this, as All, prevail- / Assent-and you are sane- / Demur-you’re straightway dangerous, / And handled with a Chain-” These last lines fully develop her argument. As long as you consent or agree with the “right way” to look at things or believe what the majority does you are deemed sane. If you are different in any way from the crowd and disagree with convention you are labeled as dangerous. She explicitly states what happens to those who are seen as abnormal: they are imprisoned, locked away so they will not contaminate the rest.
I took this poem as a direct address to those who wanted to silence Dickinson by making her poetry more conventional, less controversial, and more accepted by the majority. I think those who tried to censor her poems did her and the rest of us a great disservice. They found it necessary to tame her ideas about religion and other “dangerous” subject matter because it was a threat to how they lived and believed.
As is often the case, brilliant people like Emily Dickinson start revolutions that cannot be understood or appreciated until long after their lifetime. As in her other poems, Dickinson clearly states a fondness for being weird and insane. I would have to agree with her, eccentric people are often the most brilliant and “mad” people make some of the best poetry!
Want to learn more about Emily Dickinson? I wrote a slightly longer piece on her treatment of women in selected poems (as well as her identity as an unconventional woman writer) if you are interested!