A woman of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson, an American poetess, was way ahead of her time writing poems in an unconventional manner. Most of her work was not recognized at her time because of this reason, and the ones published were heavily edited and altered to make it count under the conventional standards of poetry.
Emily wrote hundreds of short poems, with deep meaning and prominence. They were not discovered until her demise, when her sister found out several books brimming with her poems. Emily chose the life of a recluse, locked away from the society, writing some of the best poems of her life. After her death at the age of 56 in the year 1886, the first volume of her poems was published in 1890. Even though acknowledgement of her work was not a part of her living presence, she is posthumously renowned as a great influence in the world of poetry for the 21st century writers.
The poem by Emily Dickinson, Much Madness is Divinest Sense, goes like this:
Emily Dickinson starts this poem by saying that the madness in you is not madness indeed. It is the real you, in the 'divinest sense'. This is a fact known only by you and the person with 'a discerning eye' who can understand this real self in you.
She compares sense (that of the society) with 'starkest madness', meaning sheer insanity. She then strikes on 'the majority', meaning the society we live in, that wants us to be sane and live their snobbish lifestyle, and this is what sanity means to them. This sense you show to the world is in fact only that what the world wants to see in you. The madness in which we 'all prevail'. This is where we are living, this is where we belong.
If you agree to what the society thinks or believes in, you will be considered a part of the society. You will be accepted and be called right-minded, be treated sane. But if you dare to do the opposite, to demur, to rebel against the madness of the society, you will not just be rejected, or called insane, but 'straightway' be declared 'dangerous'. Being dangerous makes you a threat, so you will be 'handled with a chain', chains that bind you to being someone else, and make you behave how they want you to, enslaved by social bondage!
The history of Emily Dickinson reveals a lot of anger indwelled in her for the society. This poem must be based on her real story, of how she was rejected by the society for being herself. She believed that the society has no right to take decisions for one's life and make judgments based on his way of living. A line-by-line explanation of what Emily has portrayed in this poem of hers is elucidated in this analysis.
Much Madness is divinest Sense
Emily believes that every person has madness in them. 'Madness' is only a definition that the world has given for those people who want to be themselves. It is, but the purest form of ourselves. To choose between being the real us, and that what we are expected to be, is in our hands.
To a discerning eye
If we choose to be the real selves, no one but us and the ones with 'a discerning eye', those people who have a sense of true judgment of right from wrong will understand us. Such people we might find very few, because of the slaves that others love to be to the society that they themselves built. Very few exist, who would be themselves regardless of what the society has to say.
Much sense - the starkest madness
As we continue to live in a society, it starts to expect a great deal of duty from us towards them. But we are all not the same, and don't wish to go by their rules. This society makes its rules on the basis of what it thinks is right, and people follow it blindly, even if it is the stupidest thing ever. They want to make a fool out of everybody, and keep them in this deception till they perish. Their desperation of wanting things to go according to them, their need of acceptance being right or wrong, is sheer madness. If not this, then what else is?
Line #4 & #5
'Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails
Emily speaks of the majority, as those people of the society, who follow it religiously. They were born to be slaves to it, and since they outnumber the few of us who want to break free from this false greed of portraying ourselves as the epitome of pretentious beings, their way of living is all that prevails. We are forced to be a part of the madness the society offers to us in a silver spoon to gulp down our systems suppressing our real selves under it. They will eventually get out of you what they want, even if it's not in the best of your interest.
Assent - and you are sane
Emily warns us that only if we agree to the illogical beliefs of the majority, we are safe from any kind of mental torture. Our actions and thinking are required to be in unison with that of the society. Then we will be considered equal, sane and one of them.
Demur - you're straightway dangerous
But if at all, we protest against them, we will be subjected to betrayal of their sacred geometry of foolishness. We will be looked down upon, with eyes full of hatred and wickedness, that will not let us live in peace. Not only will we be declared crazy, but also considered a threat to the society. Any change that comes for good, has never been accepted by the society until a few lives are sacrificed and tortured.
And handled with a Chain
Once we are declared a threat, a danger to the rigid thinking of this society, they will try by all possible means to suppress us and force us to become one of them. Theirs is a social bondage, that ties us all to their narrow-mindedness.
The theme of this poem can be rebellion either against the so-called sane society that wouldn't mind its own business interfering into the lives of people they call insane, or the revolution their thoughts can bring into the minds of people causing them to abandon the whole idea of a society.
It can also be the anger and frustration of a weeping conscience bound by the chains of society that won't let it breathe the air of freedom till it crumbles to dust.