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Sarah’s Formal Blog Post on Dickinson’s Poems

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“Assent, and you are sane” –435

“Ourself behind ourself, concealed —/Should startle most —” –690

Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds of poem throughout her lifetime, so it stands to reason that a few would address disability. The three poems we read for today, 327, 435, and 690 all deal with disability from different viewpoints–327 even deals with a physical disability. For space purposes, I’ll focus on representations of mental disability in 435 (“Much Madness is divinest Sense–“) and 690 (“One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted–“). In these poems, she argues that although mental disability can be a real and threatening thing, it is largely a social construct.

“One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted–“, number 690 in her life’s work of poems, deals intimately with mental disability, using metaphor heavily to characterize madness and make the threat of it real. As the title suggests, there can be danger in metaphysical places, that is, the mind can be a battlefield even more so than any “Material Place” could. She lists the things that we fear more than a disease of the mind:  “…a Midnight Meeting/ External Ghost,” “an Abbey gallop,/ The Stones a’chase —,” and “Assassin hid in our Apartment.” In juxtaposition to these scenarios, she describes scenes of attack from one’s own mind, saying that outside attacks are safer by far “Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter —/ In lonesome Place —.” To Dickinson, mental disability is a real and very threatening reality, although we do not know if or to what extent she personally encountered it. To me, the fear in this poem in particular makes me think that if she did not fight it herself, she was at least afraid of madness, possibly for the perceived loss of intellect. It’s important to remember that hardly a handful of her poems were published in her lifetime, and most likely the majority of her poems were not written for any audience outside of Dickinson herself, which make them unusually reliable and unfettered by commercial intent.

435, or “Much Madness is divinest Sense–“, is one of Dickinson’s more well-known poems, and is often quoted. This short gem is all about how we normalize sanity and measure insanity against it. When she writes:  “‘T is the majority/In this, as all, prevails,” she refers to popular opinion being the ruler on which mental disability is measured, and then lays out a clear line between sane and insane. She says that if you agree with the majority and act as society dictates then you are considered mentally healthy (“Assent, and you are sane”). If you do not concur with this strict ideal, you are considered crazy and “handled with a chain.” This has interesting implications on Dickinson’s life–though we do not have evidence that she was certifiably insane, we do know that she lived an abnormal lifestyle and had characteristics that were not as readily accepted by society (i.e. lived alone most of her life, kept to herself, etc.). Whether or not her mental chamber is haunted, she was most likely marginalized and forced into a very small social construct.

These two poems support each other and together make a wider definition of mental disability in Dickinson’s sphere. When we consider possible personal applications to her poems, the experience is a unique one of her honest and un-influenced ideas and fears about disability, particuarly mental disability–that it was real and scary, but still largely socially constructed.