Dickinson’s “Much Madness is divinest Sense” – New Critics Perspective

“Much Madness is divinest Sense” is a poem by the American poet Emily Dickinson. This article will analyse the poem under the theoretical framework of New Criticism. New Criticism is a school of thought that viewed the text as an autotelic entity “constituted by internal relations and independent of reference either to state of mind of the author or the actualities of the external world.”

The New Critics emphasised on Close reading. Which means that, they looked at the poem as an organic entity of its own instead of associating it to the external cultural and historical background. A close reading of this poem would hence exclude all external factors such as the time period or the socio-political background which the poem might refer to. Furthermore, Wimsatt and Beardsley coined the terms intentional and affective fallacies. According to them, reading the poem by trying to understand the ‘intent’ of the poet would fall under intentional fallacy. In this poem, reading it with reference to Emily Dickinson or her views and criticisms on religion and patriarchy must be avoided. Affective fallacy refers to reading the text in terms of the emotional effect that it has on a particular reader.

The poem presents several sets of opposing forces like sanity and insanity, rationality and irrationality, and consequences of either assenting or demurring. The poet persona offers two opposing choices. If one chooses to assent and follow the orders without questions, then they are considered sane. But if one chooses to voice out their opinion and demur against the orders, then they are instantly branded as dangerous and are subjected to punishment. The persona does not specify which is better. Although assenting seems like the easier option of the two, the individual has to go against their beliefs and give up their freedom of choice to be labelled safely as sane. Meanwhile, demurring results in the curbing of physical freedom or the loss of a social status, but the individual at least had the satisfaction of being true to themselves. Both the choices ultimately result in the loss of freedom in one way or the other. Thus, the poem achieves perfect balance or equilibrium and is rendered invulnerable to irony.

Ambiguity, paradox and metaphors have been used throughout the poem. The terms ‘much’, ‘madness’ and ‘sanity’ are not terms that are adequately quantifiable. They are ambiguous in the sense that each of these are perceived differently by different individuals. What ‘much madness’ is to one person might not be the same to another. Similarly, madness in itself is an ambiguous term as it can be defined only with reference to context. In the beginning line, madness is considered to be the divinest sense, and yet, due to the subjective nature of the perception of madness, it is also seen as something dangerous. This serves as a paradox within the poem.

In his essay “The Well-Wrought Urn”, Cleanth Brooks speaks of the ‘heresy of paraphrase’ wherein, the text cannot be subjected to summarisation without losing its meaning. Similarly, in this poem, culling out a line from within the poem would render it meaningless. The poem works as an organic unity wherein all the lines complement each other within the context to give it full meaning.

The New Critics considered the form of the poem to be equal or reflective of the content of the poem. Here, the random capitalisation of words and the abrupt pauses disrupts the flow and rhythm of the verse, hence reflecting the sense of madness mentioned in the poem. Similarly, words like ‘much’ and ‘madness’ are repeated to emphasise on the inherent theme of the poem. In the sixth line, we see that the lines are much shorter and simpler as the persona speaks about assent and its simple consequences. But in the seventh and eighth lines, the lines are much complex and stretched out as the persona speaks of demurring which is reflective of the dire consequences mentioned in the poem. Dashes are present throughout the poem linking each line to another which is representative of the ‘chain’ mentioned in the final line. The poem “Much Madness is divinest Sense” can be regarded as an ‘ideal poem’ according to the framework laid down by the New Critics. The poem presents two opposing forces of assenting and demurring which achieves equilibrium by proving that neither is better off than the other, hence rendering the poem invulnerable to irony. The poem also uses ambiguity as well as paradox to convey the theme better. The form of the poem is reflective of the content which maintains the organic structure of the text.