Text of the Poem

Much Madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail—     
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightway dangerous—
And handled with a Chain—

Footnotes

  1. “Handled” is a verb that means “to exert authority or control over,” or “to manage.” If something needs to be “handled,” it is presumably a problem. In turn, that which handles it has the authority to “right” the wrong. This verb choice reinforces the power and control that the majority has.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Because the poem ends on this idea of the violence that comes with dissenting from the majority, one could read the initial claim of the poem as “sanity” being the real madness. If “sanity” is conform to the majority or be severely punished, then this “sanity” is not normal or healthy: it is in fact the “starkest madness.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. “Chain” creates an image that implies restriction or harsh punishment. One can be detained or beaten by a chain. This final line once again invokes the violence that occurs when one does not conform to the majority.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The use of “demur” also invokes religious themes about the “danger” of doubt. The most important component of a Christian’s belief system is their faith in God and Christian theology. Doubt is seen as the ultimate sin. Given Dickinson’s strict Christian community, the claim that “demuring” from the majority suggests that the doubt or dissention she imagines here is partially religious.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The verb demur has several meanings: “to linger or dwell upon”; “to pause in uncertainty”; “to raise objection.” Which meaning in particular the speaker uses is uncertain; however, we can understand it based on its contrastive relationship to “assent”: any doubt, hesitation, or protest against the majority has negative results.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. This line could express a more universal claim about human society as well. To “assent” to the majority is to be perceived as normal and therefore live in relative peace within one’s community. However, this conformity comes at the sacrifice of the individual who must yield to a dominant mentality.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. Dickinson grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, a conservative Christian small-town. Her father was domineering which was particularly damaging to the rebellious thinking of the young poet. Naturally introverted and shy, Dickinson was seen as a pariah by many people in her community. Thus, the idea that “insanity” was simply the majority’s perception of non-conformity could be seen as coming from this biographical context.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. “‘Tis” is an archaic combination of “it is.” When this pronoun-verb combination appears at the beginning of a sentence to introduce another noun, a rhetorical emphasis is placed on that noun. In this example, by saying “‘Tis the Majority,” the speaker emphasizes the importance of the “Majority” in the subsequent lines.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. “Assent” is a verb that means “to conform in practice, submit, or yield.” Dickinson uses this verb to suggest that there is inherent violence in the conformity that signals one’s “sanity”: one must “yield” to the Majority in order to be seen as sane. Sanity is thus defined as something socially constructed rather than something objective.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. While eyes allow us to see physical objects, we can also use “Eyes” to mean more figurative sight. One’s mind’s eye, for example, refers to our ability to “see” thoughts. If we consider both of these abilities to see, then the “discerning Eye” refers to an ability to distinguish not only physical distinctions between Sense and Madness but also mental.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. “This” is a demonstrative pronoun, meaning a pronoun that refers to a fact, occurrence, or statement implied in previous context. In this way, “this” groups together the entire idea presented in the first few lines of this poem: that sense and madness are the same. However, the nature of Dickinson’s writing suggests that “this” might also be a poetic device called “deixis.” Deixis is the use of pronouns that have intentionally unclear referents which force the reader to interpret the subject of the line based on their understanding of the context. When read through a deictic lens, “this” thing that the majority prevails in is unclear; the emphasis of the line becomes the Majority’s power to prevail rather than the object that it controls.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. Depending on how the reader interprets the first line, the tone of the poem can turn on this adjective. “Discerning” can be understood to mean having the ability to perceive things clearly, demonstrating good judgment, or simply being able to make distinctions between things.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. The syntax of this line replicates the syntax of the first line. Because of this, we can read the first and third lines as complimentary inversions of each other: madness is the divinest sense, sense the starkest madness. “Starkest” in this context means the most powerful and authoritative. While both lines connect sense and madness to seemingly positive concepts, “starkest” is also defined as the most “impenetrable, harsh, and violent.” However, the negative connotations inherent to “stark” imbue the second claim with problematic double meanings: while madness is divine, sense can be seen as violently dangerous.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. While intuited by many readers, this form of the verb “to be” conveys a relationship of equality. That is, according to the speaker, “Much Madness” equates to “divinest Sense.” The speaker therefore makes a bold, stark claim at the beginning of this sentence with a paradox.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. The noun “madness” actually has multiple nuanced definitions, all of which may pertain to the reading of this short poem. First, “madness” could refer to literal insanity or mental impairment, likely of a severe kind. Second, it could refer to a delusion, or a wild foolishness resembling insanity. Third, it could mean wild excitement or enthusiasm, or an exuberant lack of restraint. Finally, “madness” could mean uncontrollable anger, fury, or rage. Regardless of the definition, the idea conveyed suggests that madness is behavior outside of what is considered normal.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. When applied to an emotion or other state of being, "much" means "intense," "severe," or "great." However, when applied to a quality or virtue, it means "to a high degree" or "in an exemplary form." Considering the equal relationship that the speaker establishes between "Madness" and "Sense," we can understand "much" to mean something along the lines of "enough of this is appropriate."

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. Notice that the alliterative sounds in this poem underscore the tension between madness and sanity. “D” sounds, from words such as “divinest," "dangerous," and "demur," replicate the idea of madness. Similarly, “S” sounds, from words such as "sane," "assent," and "sense," reinforce the idea of sanity.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. Despite the many dashes that could signal to the reader a sense of frantic fragmentation, this poem is constructed logically. Unlike other poems in which ellipse and syntax make it hard to parse Dickinson’s thoughts, each idea in this poem corresponds to the end of a line. Dickinson creates this critique of society using strict poetic control that complicates the poem’s biting tone.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. “Divinest” is a superlative adjective that means “inspired by God” or “surpassing beauty, perfection, excellence, etc.; extraordinarily good or great.” By this line, the speaker claims that “madness” is the best form of sense; so great it seems almost inspired by God. This hyperbolic claim suggests an ironic or biting tone to the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. To disagree with the majority, then, is to guarantee yourself some form of restriction--either metaphorical (perhaps being ignored) or literal (in an institution for the mentally ill). The poem's theme is that one either thinks conventionally or pays a heavy price for being unconventional, one of ED's favorite themes.

    — Stephen Holliday