Poem #620 by Dickinson begins by declaring ” Much Madness is divinest Sense –/To a discerning Eye –/Much Sense the starkest Madness –” (1). Upon first glance, this has the appearance of creating tension through the ambiguity of opposing terms (Madness-Sense) and amplifies this tension with a second opposition (divinest-starkest).
These oppositions only remain if we treat the text as separate from the historical-political context in which it was written. Specifically the regulation of women’s bodies through the mechanism of psychiatric diagnosis. In “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?” Gilman illuminates the autobiographical nature of her story “The Yellow Wallpaper”(2), a story in which the protagonist is described as possessing “temporary nervous depression — a slightly hysterical tendency”(3). The diagnosis of hysteria and others like it became common in the beginning of the Renaissance(4). This diagnosis arose from conflict between the Apollonian nature of the Christian male majority and the Dionysian nature of the human psyche. This difference became a means to tighten patriarchal controls on womens’ bodies (5).
Furthermore, regardless of the controls manufactured by patriarchy, there is a history of what has come to be called “madness” being treated as, not just natural and normal, but as a blessing in and of itself which can provide a valuable service to the community, assuming the community was willing to support individuals going through various forms of madness (6). However, our culture, and even more so the culture of the 19th century, has been unwilling to “Make a person as comfortable and safe as possible, and then allow them to go through their inner journey to the end.”(7) That is, allowing a person to do what they need to do to take care of themselves even if it goes against social norms and logic.
Because of this, women such as Dickinson and Gillman were restrained by social convention and the threat of institutionalization and thus weren’t able to fully express their humanity or their womanhood. They were, just as we are, not allowed to engage in the Dionysian activity in an Apollonian culture, not allowed to engage in the divine madness necessary to maintain one’s starkest sense.
This is the perception (Eye) that allows us to resolve the apparent oppositions within Dickinson’s poem and discern meaning.
In fact, with the understanding gained from our exploration of a possible meaning of the first three lines, the remainder of the poem becomes an unambiguous extension of the argument. Women were, and still are, expected and required to submit to harms imposed by an uncaring patriarchal society in order to be considered sane and risk institutionalization (in prison or asylum) for doing otherwise.
1) Dickinson (2017) pg 104
2) Gilman (2017) pg 856
3) Gilman (2017) pg 844
4) Walker (1983) pg 421
5) Sjoo (1991) pg 295-297
6) Sjoo (1991) pg 188
7) Sjoo (1991) pg 296
– Dickinson, Emily. (2017) “620”. *Norton Anthology of Literature*. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
– Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (2017) “The Yellow Wallpaper”. *Norton Anthology of Literature*. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
– Walker Barbara. (1983) “Hysteria”. *The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.* Harper, San Francisco. pg 421
– Sjoo, Monica Mor, Barbara. (1991) “Moon and Womb” *The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth*. Harper, San Francisco. pg 288-297