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The Passion of Emily Dickinson

Maeve O'Brien By Maeve O'Brien Published on May 17, 2017

The newest film from the renowned director Terence Davies (The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea) focuses on the life and work of Emily Dickinson. Starring Cynthia Nixon – better known as Miranda from HBO’s Sex and the City - A Quiet Passion has so far received rapturous reviews with The New Yorker among others lauding the “audaciously confrontational and uninhibited visual imagination” of the picture. Certainly, Emily Dickinson is an obvious choice for a film director interested in probing the life and work of a significant female poet. The mystique that surrounds Dickinson resonates with the content of her unusual poems – sometimes prickly, always passionate. While the truth of the assertion that she wore a white gown every day and floated ethereally within the walls of her family home in Amherst Massachusetts is still subject to debate amongst biographers and scholars, this romantic imagery nevertheless makes for a beautiful canvas upon which to produce a film.

Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson was one of the first major female poetic voices to emerge in American Literature. But, had you been interested in American literature and lived during the 1800s, you could be forgiven for not knowing her name while the poet was alive. In fact, the bulk of Dickinson’s poems were not published until after her death in 1886, the last of which being printed as late as 1955. In her daily life and especially as she grew older, Dickinson rarely ventured out into society, instead writing from her bedroom in her family homestead. Despite this self-imposed isolation however, it would be a mistake to consider her choice of isolation as any form of reticence. Dickinson maintained an active correspondence with friends and publishers. As she wrote in poem #932, “My best Acquaintances are those / With Whom I spoke no Word”. Dickinson did more than keep up letter writing friendships – she spent years writing hundreds of poems in her bedroom, words which, upon publication, would amaze and astound readers around the world.

Titled only by number, Dickinson’s poetry is full of lively, clear manifestations of thought. Writing at a time when transcendentalism was in vogue, Dickinson’s works have often been grouped in with the poetry of lynchpins of modern American poetry, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But Dickinson considered herself on a solitary journey to explore truths and question absolutes, rather than taking on the role of teacher as Thoreau and Emerson did. Her poetry has been much written about by feminist critics, who consider her depiction of female emotions and experiences as landmark and explicitly feminist, concerned with the interiority of women’s experiences and lives. Indeed, with words like the following from poem #530, it is hard to argue against such statements:

I took my Power in my Hand --
And went against the World --
'Twas not so much as David -- had --
But I -- was twice as bold --

I aimed by Pebble --
but Myself Was all the one that fell --
Was it Goliath -- was too large --
Or was myself -- too small?

Dickinson’s poetry begs to be read aloud. The line breaks, punctuation, hyphens, pauses and capitalisations of the letters, plus the animated vocabulary she employs bursts off the tongue when we read her work. Truly, in the silence of her bedroom, Dickinson was able to conjure new worlds, emit popping sounds through words and speak of her authentic self. 

Her work is concerned too with god, the intricacies of life and mortality. As a woman living in the nineteenth century, Dickinson was remarkably resistant against social norms and religious constrictions that would have impeded her freedom of thought and creativity. She muses upon her existence and asks questions that we still search for answers to today:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

It is perhaps this connection to our contemporary lives that means Emily Dickinson’s words are still important and explains why in 2017, a film has been made about her life.

Despite the almost two-hundred year gap between her birth and now, the questions Dickinson asks, the intensity of her connection to her humanity and her passion for the written word find kindred spirits in readers today. We see her words echo and reverberate down throughout twentieth and twenty-first literature too. For example, Max Porter’s moving and evocative 2015 novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers directly references Dickinson by playing on the words from her poem #314, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.” Porter’s novel focuses on a bereaved husband caring for his two children in the aftermath of suicide and it a gut-wrenching, evocative and brave evocation of grief and loss. This novel is indebted to Dickinson and her own attempts to reckon with such events and forces.

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Another contemporary novel that owes a great deal to the work of Dickinson is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. In an interview with The Paris Review, Robinson spoke of how she wrote “in a little room with Emily Dickinson light pouring in”, illustrating how as a writer she felt the spirit of Dickinson guiding her creativity. This statement from Robinson is echoed in interviews with other female writers such as Adrienne Rich, who in her landmark book of critical essays On Lies, Secrets and Silence wrote of her pilgrimage to Dickinson’s home in Amherst as an almost spiritual connection, vital to her writing. In Housekeeping, sisters Ruth and Lucille experience loss and tumult - written in a devastatingly beautiful and dense prose style that is without doubt beholden to the words of Dickinson. Set largely in Fingerbone, an utterly isolated small town aside a lake, Housekeeping is a luscious read that continues to engage with the questions of life and grief that preoccupied Dickinson so.

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For those new to Dickinson, her Complete Poems may seem daunting, but given that many of her poems are short electrifying snippets, the trepidation of purchasing such a large tome is unfounded. Further, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington is a fascinating and powerful read of the poet’s passions and illustrates the intensity of her friendships. This book contains letters from her thirty-six year correspondence with her beloved sister-in-law. Both collections offer a brilliant insight into female creativity in the nineteenth century and open a window into the secluded realm of Emily Dickinson, who may not have left Amherst, but whose words have travelled the world.

Based in Northern Ireland, Maeve holds a PhD in English Literature - her thesis deconstructed silence in the work of Sylvia Plath. Maeve is an avid reader of poetry, fiction and academic ... Show More