What Does ‘Much Madness is Divinest Sense’ Say About Individualism?
Emily Dickinson’s poem, Much Madness is Divinest Sense addresses the idea of individualism by discussing how those who choose not to ‘fit in’ are classed as being mad whilst suggesting that those who don’t endeavour to be an individual are truly the mad ones: she states that as usual, it is the majority whose opinion prevails – “’Tis the majority – In this, as All, prevail” (Dickinson 4-5). Dickinson was a poet ahead of her time – she held much more modern views which did not conform to the social and cultural conventions of the time. According to George and Barbara Perkins in The American Tradition in Literature, it was the romantics who “preferred freedom to formalism, and individualism to cultural authority” (Perkins & Perkins 1221). The book goes on to discuss Dickinson in terms of her roots as being based in a Puritan upbringing but how she inherited the romantic ideas which helped to make her poetry of a modern persuasion which meant that she did not conform to the true social expectations of nineteenth century America and particularly not of Puritan ideals either.
The poem itself is short and succinctly discusses the idea of individualism as being fundamentally unaccepted by the masses. However, the inference that can be drawn from this is that if everyone agreed to be an individual then it would paradoxically cancel out individualism altogether. Dickinson makes it clear that she does not agree with this though by saying “To a discerning eye – Much sense – the starkest Madness” (Dickinson 2-3) which indicates that Dickinson feels that the ability to question conformity and to carry out individualism indicates a higher cognitive level which nowadays would be seen as not being mad but, at the time of the poem’s composure, it was highly criticised and she states: “Demur – you’re straightaway dangerous – and handled with a Chain” (Dickinson 7-8) – the chain here is used to perpetuate the idea of ‘madness’ and those who are individuals being accused of such.
Dickinson’s peers, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain “both asserted that the great writer must ‘absorb’ his country” (Perkins & Perkins 1927) but in this instance, Dickinson is clearly subverting her country’s interest in conformity and far from absorbing her country, she appears to be actively discouraging her readers not to do so. In this sense, the poem is a complete addressing of the concept of individualism: Dickinson asserts that those who are individuals are considered to be mavericks and non-conformists and dangerous to society, whilst also encouraging her readers to be individuals. She criticises society at the time for being too quick to judge those who do not simply accept what they are told and who question things instead.
Emily Dickinson is widely considered to be a maverick who was well ahead of her times in terms of her thinking – for instance, she was a woman who questioned the expectations that society placed upon her and anyone else. Her poem, Much Madness is Divinest Sense indicates her way of thinking as contravening with the social and cultural ‘norms’ of the time. The poem encourages the reader to express their individualism in spite of her saying that society disregards it as madness – in today’s world, individualism is encouraged but in her time, Dickinson was way ahead of the curve.
Perkins, Barbara & Perkins, George. The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 1999. Print.
“Much Madness is Divinest Sense.” PoetryFoundation.org. Emily Dickinson. 1998. Web. 9 August 2011.