Much Madness is divinest Sense

Insanity is relative.

It depends on who has who locked in what cage.

-Ray Bradbury, “The Meadow”

Biography of Emily DickinsonEdit

Emily Dickinson daguerreotype (cropped)

Emily Dickinson was a 19th-century American poet whose distinctive writing style made her stand out from the other poets in her era. She is known for her notably unconventional writing style that was unique at the time, where she often made use of dashes and unusual capitalization, and frequently used slant rhyme, which is a type of rhyme with words that have similar but not identical sounds. She ignored the typical rules of versification and grammar, making her work brave and completely original.[1] Dickinson was highly educated and was raised in a Calvinist household, which emphasized the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible. This religious influence permeates throughout her work. She had a complicated relationship with her religious beliefs and God; while her friends and family proclaimed their love of Christ, she was reluctant to join the church and ultimately stopped attending services altogether.[2]

Dickinson’s family was well known in the Massachusetts community where they lived. Her grandfather was a trustee of Amherst College, while her father had served in both state and federal Congresses. Although Dickinson herself was more socially active at a younger age, she became more reclusive later in the later years of her life. Scholars believe she was troubled from a young age by the "deepening menace" of death; throughout her lifetime she would suffer tremendous loss of friends and family, while later living through the time of the American Civil war that began in 1861 and ended in 1865. She began to isolate herself in her room in her family’s homestead and did not leave unless it was absolutely necessary. She began to talk to her visitors from the other side of her door instead of speaking to them face to face. Only the few people who knew her personally and had exchanged written correspondence with her during the last years of her life had ever seen her in person.[2] Her writing was said to be an outlet for her to express herself verbally rather than socially. Her works reflect this, as they are full of religious imagery and nuance, conversations about death, the ironies of life, her love of nature, and criticisms of societal behaviors.[3]

Dickinson died of heart failure at her home on May 15th, 1886. Only a handful of poems and a single letter were published during her life. After her death, her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s vast collection of nearly 1,800 poems and letters, and she had Dickinson's first volume published almost four years after her death. Literary scholar Thomas H. Johnson would eventually publish Dickinson's Complete Poems in 1955, and her poems have been in print continuously since.[2]

Divine madness and poetryEdit

Divine madness, which is also referred to as “crazy wisdom,” is usually described as a manifestation of enlightened behavior by an individual who has transcended societal norms. The behaviors that the individual will act out may seem to other individuals in their society as symptoms of mental illness, but they are said to really be a form of religious ecstasy.[4] According to scholars like June McDaniel, David M. DiValerio, Georg Feuerstein, and others, the discussion of divine madness is found throughout history and across many cultures. It is said to reflect an expression of a divine, or godly, love. In some religions such as western Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and others, divine madness is described as an unordinary form of madness; it is behavior that is “consistent with the structure of a spiritual path or a form of complete assimilation of God”.[4]

The Athenian philosopher Plato discussed his ideas of divine madness in his text Phaedrus. He described “Theia mania,” a Greek phrase for divine madness, as being a “gift of the gods.” In Phaedrus, Plato’s main protagonist Socrates declares, "In fact the best things we have comes from madness”.[5] Plato discusses the topic of divine madness once more in his text Ion. In the text, Ion is a professional reciter of poetry, and he argues with Socrates about the nature of the art. They argue that art is a divine inspiration, and that “divine madness is like the prophet being overtaken by God,” where God then speaks through the artist.[6]

In the Pentecostal religion, which is a sect of Protestant Christianity, the practice of divine madness is encouraged among its followers. In Judaism, the Holy Spirit, also known as the Holy Ghost, is the “divine force, quality, and influence of God over the universe or over his creatures, while in Islam, the Holy Spirit acts as an agent of divine action or communication.” The activities, behaviors, and alleged healing power of the possessed is said to be the “Holy Spirit” in action.[7] This phenomenon is known as charism, which in Christian theology is defined as a "power or authority of a spiritual nature, believed to be a freely given gift by the grace of God."[8] To the people who do not believe or who are untouched by the by the Holy Spirit, the phenomenon of "hearing spiritual voices" may appear to be a symptom of mental illness. The followers of the Pentecostal religion believe there has long been evidence of the Holy Spirit being deeply rooted within Christian spirituality. It is believed that Saint Augustine had “similar experiences of deliberate hallucinations and madness.”[4]

Background of the textEdit

The poem “Much Madness is divinest Sense” by Emily Dickinson is thought to have been written in 1862, but because much of her work was not published until well after her death in 1886 it cannot be said for certain. It was published as part of the Dickinson collection Poems, edited by two friends of the poet, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1890.[9]

Religious tones are present in the poem, as well as a sense of wit and rebellion that reveals frustration at the societal norms of the time.

The TextEdit

Much Madness is divinest Sense - (1)

To a discerning Eye - (2)

Much Sense - the starkest Madness - (3)

’Tis the Majority (4)

In this, as all, prevail - (5)

Assent - and you are sane - (6)

Demur - you’re straightway dangerous - (7)

And handled with a Chain - (8)

A Helpful GlossaryEdit

The American vocabulary in the 19th Century was very different from what it is now. Dickinson’s poetry is also notorious for the use of certain words with a variety of connotations so understanding the definitions of certain words gives new meaning to her writing. The Emily Dickinson Lexicon was created to help translate these words to allow the reader a clearer understanding of her poetry. Here are some definitions of words used in “Much madness…”

Madness, n:  

A.) Distraction; preoccupation; absent-mindedness; [fig.] artistic genius; intellectual brilliance; poetic creativity.

B.) Disorder; craziness; passion; frivolity; erratic behavior; lack of caution; [fig.] windiness; unpredictable weather.

C.) Ecstasy; rapture; jubilee; exhilaration.

Divine (-st), adj.

A.) Heavenly; godlike; ecclesiastical; (see Hebrews 9:1).

B.) Godly; higher; sacred; increase of heavenly state; (see 2 Peter 1:3).

C.) Best; greatest; sublime; (see Proverbs 16:10).

D.) Supernatural; immortal significance; (see Ezekiel 13:23).

Stark (-est), adj. [OE 'to grow rigid, strength, strong, become frozen'.]

A.) Bleak; desolate.

B.) Gross; mere; absolute.

Sense (-s), n.  

A.) Reason; mind; mental stability; ability to feel; faculties of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and so forth.

B.) Sanity; lucidity; order; rationality; [fig.] insight; inspiration.

C.) Significance; meaning; intimation; definition; [word play] sensory perception from the physical world.

D.) One's body; physical being; perception of the material world.

Being; consciousness; identity.

Assent, v.

Agree; yield; concede; concur; give in; conform in practice; [possible word play on “ascent”.]

Demur (-ed), v.  

A.) Refuse; decline; dissent; hesitate; back away.

B.) Object; protest; resist; contest.

C.) Pause; hesitate; linger; wait; stop.

D.) Relent; repent; soften; yield; change mind; make a concession.


The poem opens with a paradox with the first line, where the speaker states that “madness” is actually “sense.” In poetry, a paradox is a figure of speech that is a self-contradictory phrase or concept that illuminates a truth. The speaker declares that what is considered to be sane or insane based on the opinion of the majority should be rejected by any intelligent person. The speaker may also be implying that an individual whom society considers to be “mad” or insane might be touched by God; it can be suggested that the “divine madness” the speaker is referring to is the sometimes erratic and unconventional behavior that a person displays when they are receiving a divine message. The poem suggests that the experiences or ideas of individuals whom the majority considers to be mad says much more about society itself than the individual who is being called crazy. The speaker argues that who society considers to be “mad” or who’s behavior goes against acceptable societal norms should be seen to a person with a “discerning Eye” (2) or a “perceiving eye” as expressing intelligence and commonsense. The “Eye” is capitalized, however, and could be a reference to God’s gaze. Furthermore, those who are untouched by divinity will not be able to understand the reason for the behaviors of those they consider mad. Only God and the individual would know the true meaning behind their behavior. The speaker then states that “Much Sense” is the “starkest madness,” (3) implying that what the majority decides is sensible and acceptable societal behavior is what should truthfully be considered insanity. A person who adheres to societal rules and plays their part without question or hesitation like “the Majority” (4) is deemed compliant and accepted as a member of that majority, as suggested in the line “Assent- and you are sane-.” (6) On the other hand, someone who questions societal rules or rejects them is seen as dangerous or insane, as expressed in the lines “Demur- you’re straightway dangerous- and handled with a Chain” (7-8).  

Although the attitude and approach towards fully understanding mental illness and its symptoms are different today than they were during Dickinson’s lifetime, there are still many similarities in the way the mentally ill are perceived by society. Those who suffer from extreme cases of mental illness are often shunned from society or kept locked away in hospitals and prisons, with unequal or limited access to proper care. In the time when the poem is said to have been written, women’s behavior was often heavily scrutinized and their main role in society was seen as the caretakers of a household or to entertain their husbands. They had limited freedom or say in what they could do unless given strict permission from a man, be it father, husband, or any other male member of their household. A man had the power to have his wife or daughter committed if they believed they were suffering from “hysteria,” which was a term used to describe emotional excess. Today, hysteria no longer exists as a medical diagnosis in Western culture, but the aftermath of hysteria as a diagnosable illness in the 18th and 19th centuries has had a lasting impact on the medical treatment of women's health.[10] The term hysterical, applied to an individual, can mean that they are emotional, irrationally upset, or frenzied. It was a common medical diagnosis during that time, used to describe a woman who was exhibiting emotionally charged behavior that someone else decided was too excessive or out of control.[11] Being called hysterical by a man and being put away because of it was a very real threat at that time, and one can only assume that Dickinson would have had strong opinions about this hypocritical aspect of society.

Dickinson herself was a well-educated and creatively gifted individual. She never married and spent much of her time secluded while she wrote. It is agreed by many literary critics and historians that Dickinson was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was an essayist, philosopher, poet, and was the founder of the transcendentalist movement.[12] Transcendentalists believe in the inherent goodness of people and nature, and that society and its institutions have the power to corrupt the purity of a person. It is a core belief of transcendentalists that people are at their best when they are self-reliant and independent.[13] Emerson also encouraged all individuals, and especially writers, to live a hermit’s life and to withdraw from society to prevent being contaminated with materialism.[12] Emerson’s influence on Dickinson can be felt in the poem, as its overall tone comes off as condescending and rebellious, with the sense that the speaker views themselves as an outcast of society for expressing commonsense and rejecting societal roles and norms.  


  1. “Emily Dickinson: Biography, Poems, Death, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica. December 6, 2021.
  2. a b c Wikipedia contributors. "Emily Dickinson." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 Nov. 2021. Web. 6 Dec. 2021
  3. “Major Characteristics of Dickinson’s Poetry” Emily Dickinson Museum.
  4. a b c Wikipedia contributors. "Divine Madness." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Dec. 2021. Web. 6 Dec. 2021
  5. Wikipedia contributors. "Phaedrus (dialogue)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Oct. 2021. Web. 6 Dec. 2021
  6. Chaliakopoulos, Antonis. “Plato’s Philosophy Of Art In Ion: The Divine Madness Of Poetry.” The Collector, 12 Sept. 2021,
  7. Wikipedia contributors. "Holy Spirit." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Nov. 2021. Web. 6 Dec. 2021
  8. charism - Wiktionary. (2021). Wiktionary.
  9. MacDonald, Deneka Candace. "Critical Essay on 'Much Madness Is Divinest Sense'." In Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
  10. Wikipedia contributors. "Hysteria." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 Dec. 2021. Web. 6 Dec. 2021
  11. “Understanding Hysteria in the Past and Present.” Verywell Mind, 16 Mar. 2020,
  12. a b "Much Madness Is Divinest Sense." Poetry for Students, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 16, Gale, 2002, pp. 84-100. Gale eBooks, Accessed 3 Dec. 2021
  13. Wikipedia contributors. "Transcendentalism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 Nov. 2021. Web. 6 Dec. 2021.