English 102, Section 53
17 April 2000
The Divinity of Nonconformists
Crazy, lunatic, mad.
… these are words that have become part of society’s everyday
Though they are psychological in nature, they are often applied to people and
objects that may not fit into the every day norm. In Emily Dickinson’s “Much Madness is
divinest Sense,” Dickinson criticizes society’s inability to accept non-conformist and
expresses the belief that it is the majority who should be labeled as, “mad.”
In the lyrical poem “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” Dickinson concentrates on
society’s judgmental views of non-conformists. Dickinson utilizes iambic tetrameter
throughout the entire poem.
There is, however, one exception; she uses two anapests in
line 4: “ ‘Tis the Majority.” By changing the rhythm in this line, Dickinson emphasizes
that it is the majority who is truly mad, and not the minority who have been wrongly
labeled so. Dickinson’s quick switch from iambic tetrameter to anapestic also emphasizes
the subject matter nonconformity because it interrupts the flow of the poem. She also
coheres to the subject of nonconformity in the rhyme scheme.
Although it appears to be
written in free verse, “Much Madness is divinest Sense” does contain a small element of
rhyme. The poem has an A B A C D E A D rhyme. For instance, the words “Sense,”
“Madness,” and “dangerous” all rhyme, as well as the words “sane” and “Chain”
(1,3,7,6,8). This unique rhyme scheme, once again, adheres to the subject matter of
It is jagged and different like the individuals that society views as “mad.”
In “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” Dickinson distinguishes between madness
and sanity: the beliefs of the majority are sane, whereas those who dissent are considered
insane. In the first two lines, Dickinson asserts, “Much Madness is divinest Sense – /To a
discerning Eye -/.” In these lines she is declaring that it is the nonconformist who is truly
blessed with sensibility and logic to people with insight and understanding.
Dickinson goes on to say that “Much Sense – the starkest Madness -/ ‘Tis the Majority,”
meaning that those who are viewed in society as having “much sense,” or conformists,
have absolute “Madness” (3,4). In the last four lines of the octave, “In this, as all prevail
– / Assent – and you are sane – / Demur – you’re straightway dangerous – / And handled
with a Chain -,” Dickinson goes on to say that one can be sure that if a person conforms to
society, or “assents,” then they are viewed as sane, but if they hesitate to conform in the
least then they are viewed as dangerous and society would like nothing more than to lock
The use of paradoxes in “Much Madness is divinest Sense” is another technique
which Dickinson takes advantage of. The whole poem compares “madness” and “sense”
which are opposite in meaning.
Though these words are opposites, Dickinson finds a
connection in meaning; while society views conformists as sane and nonconformists as
mad, it is actually the nonconformist who is sane and the conformists who are mad,
making the entire subject matter of the poem paradoxical. Dickinson also utilizes
synecdoche and metaphor; “To a discerning Eye-” (2). The “discerning Eye,” she is
speaking of is the vehicle and the tenor is simply a logical person (2). Dickinson also
metaphorically states, “Demur – you’re straightway dangerous – / and handled with a
Chain -” (7,8).
The chain the hesitant person is handled with is the vehicle, while the tenor
is society’s desire to get rid of nonconformists, or unique individuals. Another interesting
poetic device Dickinson employs is that of point of view. She utilizes third person limited
point of view throughout the poem, however in the last two lines she speaks of society’s
point of view calling those who “demur..
. straightway dangerous.” It is not Dickinson who
feels that those who hesitate to conform are dangerous, but society. By expressing
society’s point of view in such sharp contrast with her own, Dickinson makes the reader
see that “much madness” really is “divinest sense.
The unity of “Much Madness is divinest Sense” is incredible. In just eight short
lines, Dickson covers and analyzes not only her own ideals, but also compares them to
those of society. Dickinson is able to do this in such a small amount of lines because of her
coherence to the subject matter throughout the poem. She unifies the subject matter of
nonconformity in rhythm, rhyme, and style.
Because madness and nonconformity are
jagged and asperous, her style reflects that. The style and unification of the poem reflect
the subject matter as well as the content does. Dickinson also uses broken punctuation,
piercing her sentences with dashes. Once again, her punctuation illustrates her subject
matter; as society views the nonconformist as mad and jagged, her punctuation is jagged
Just as a mad man would not be able to think in a fluent way, the poem is broken
and unsteady as his thoughts would be. Her unification of the poem brings the style,
rhythm, and rhyme scheme together with the subject matter.Dickinson’s ideals in this poem are very valuable because she forces the reader to
compare his thinking with that of society’s. She makes one self-evaluate if they are
judgmental towards unique individuals and if they themselves are losing their uniqueness
by conforming to society which is embracing true madness.
It is reason, that I feel “Much
Madness is divinest Sense” has incredible worth and literary merit. In just eight lines
Dickinson not only changes one’s perception, but forces a kind of self-evaluation. Not
only this, but Dickinson illustrates poetic skill in the unity of the poem. She makes her
poem unique and “mad,” so to speak, to reiterate her subject matter.
accomplishes so much in only eight lines, it cannot be argued that the poem has literary