Much Madness is divinest Sense —
Here’s another gem from Emily Dickinson, along with my personal response below.
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 –
Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995
Please forgive me for barging in. You don’t know me and I don’t know you personally. Still, your poetry challenges me to think deeply. This one, in particular, brings me comfort and gives me courage.
I worked for years as professor and then dean at a theological seminary. It was a man’s world, though many other women studied and worked there. A memory came to mind as I worked through your poem. It was the kind of thing I think your poem describes.
I was in a small meeting with several Board members plus University and Seminary administrators. The University president introduced a change he had made at the Seminary, for which he now requested Board affirmation. Board members raised a few questions and concerns.
Someone asked whether the University president had consulted with the seminary Dean before making this decision. The president looked over at me and assured everyone that he had indeed consulted with me and with others. This was true. Then he added that he hoped I supported this change, and asked for my affirmation.
My heart in my throat, I recalled the conversation and demurred, before indicating I hoped this would be a good change. My hesitation, however, was the equivalent of expressing doubt about the decision. I wasn’t in agreement with it, and the president knew this from our earlier conversation.
The awkward moment passed, and Board members affirmed the president’s change. It seemed Sensible to them, or at least to most of them.
Demurring. You’d think hesitating before speaking would be wise, especially when dealing with superiors in a public setting. Yet small hesitations speak volumes. So do large political realities.
I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t demurred. I like to think of myself as someone who tells the truth. It isn’t always easy to know when and how to do that. Especially when I’m not in charge.
I also wonder whether I have a discerning Eye. Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. In this particular case, I had a discerning Eye. This wasn’t the “starkest Madness” ever. Nonetheless, it was an unfortunate change that came at high cost.
So what was the Chain? It became visible several times. More than once I was advised not to ask so many questions, or be so ‘emotional’ about things. In other words, why can’t you just assent, and be on the side of the Majority on this or that issue? Besides, it would show support for your colleagues and superiors.
I would rather wear the badge of ‘Madness’ for divinest Sense than the badge of ‘Sensible’ for starkest Madness. I also reserve the privilege of demurring and going with my intuition, experience and discernment. Even though they don’t look like divinest Sense.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 September 2016
Striking photo/collage of Emily found at sense.mycommunity.org