Role Of Formal Devices In Emily Dickinson’s Poems

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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Emily Dickinson is one of the greatest American poets of the the early 1900s. Her style and approach are unmistakable. During her lifetime she received little praise for her work and only a few of her poems were published. The bulk of Dickinson's poems offer obscure meanings, vivid language, and brevity. Her poems addressed the themes of love, death, and nature. However in “Much Madness is divinest Sense” and “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” Dickinson confronts the isolation and aggressive social control which plagued her life and continues to influence the lives of aspiring artists and nonconformists today.

Dickinson uses formal literary devices to demonstrate and convey to the reader her assertion that the expression of personal truth is not welcomed by society. The theme of “Much Madness is divinest Sense” is nonconformity. Dickinson believed that society was too rigid to acknowledge and accept anything that differed from the norm. Individuals who do not adhere to societal standards are treated like outcasts within society. To be considered “sane” by society, all one has to do is “assent” (6). Dickinson takes an ironic approach in which she believes that it is truly the “majority” which shows “the starkest madness” (3).

The theme in “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” exhibits the same overall theme. However, this poem offers a more personal approach to the subject. Dickinson was a prolific writer who was not just content to write about observing nature. Her poems show her deep reflection on the universal human experiences. Yet her work was often met with ridicule. It was within her writing that she learned she could tell the “bright” truth but only through “Cirrcuit lies”. She believed that society was inflexible and “infirmed” and simply unable to accept the truth about itself.

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That truth must be offered ”gradually”or all people will be “blind” to it. Both poems show Dickinson's use of paradox. Paradox is when a statement seem contradictory but is actually true. In “Much madness is divinest Sense” the paradox is within the title. Madness in this poem actually refers to people who are telling the truth and that a godly quality. In “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” the paradox exists in having to create lies to tell the truth. The themes in these poems both address the issues of nonconformity in general and more specific terms.

The use of rhyme and meter in “Much Madness is divinest Sense” and “Tell the Truth but tell it slant” are used to parallel the nonconformist content of each poem. In “Much Madness is divinest Sense” Dickinson uses traditional iambic tetrameter and switches over to anapests. Anapests are created with each metrical foot consists of three syllables, the first two short or unaccented and the last one is long and accented. An example of anapest occurs lines 4-6 of “Much Madness is divinest Sense”. Dickinson writes “’T is the majority In this, as all, prevails / Assent, and you are sane”.

The rhyme scheme in each could be consider slant rhyme. Traditional poetry keeps the rhyme at the end of each line. However, slant rhyme is disjointed and the rhyme is often forced. "Sense,""Madness," and "dangerous" all rhyme however, dangerous does not have the same emphasis or syllable count. The same is observed in “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”. In this poem the rhyme is imperfect and altered. It is through the expectation that the end of lines will rhyme that displays Dickinson assertion that only through unorthodox means can she. and perhaps all artists, tell the truth.

“Lies” and “surprise” as well as “kind” and “blind” rhyme. However, lies and surprise have a different number of syllables. The odd rhyme and meter utilized by Dickinson contribute to her theme of nonconformity by interrupting the smooth flow of each poem. While each piece of poetry seems like free verse, it takes a couple of attempts to understand how the poem is actually supposed to sound. Dickinson expertly uses rhyme, meter, and paradox to support her belief that individuals who openly share subversive views on society are often isolated and treated cruelly by that society.

These individuals are paradoxes. Society, blind to the truth they speak, would rather call them mad then deal with their own reflections. Dickinson wit as author, which is often overlooked, is clearly demonstrated in this poems. In “Much Madness is the divinest Sense” and “Tell the Truth but tell it slant” Dickinson exhibits her her ability to be an interpretor of the human experience. She easily relates the pressure of social conformity through intentional and specific word choice while still maintaining the brevity she is known for.

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Role Of Formal Devices In Emily Dickinson’s Poems. (2016, Aug 24). Retrieved from

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