What to watch: ‘A Quiet Passion’

This profoundly moving film explores the mysterious life of Emily Dickinson

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle star as Emily and Lavinia Dickson in ‘A Quiet Passion’. Photograph: Johan Voets 

In her time, she barely existed, except to her family and her closest confidantes, of whom there were few – she had no public presence, none of the acclaim or opprobrium we associate with being an artist. She sat in a papered room and wrote, and wrote and wrote and wrote, nearly 1,800 poems, only a few of which were published in her lifetime. But then, Emily Dickinson was a poet like no other, her work far removed from that of her contemporaries; and still compellingly mysterious now. Open her collected poems – I have RW Franklin’s ‘reading edition’ on my desk – at almost any page, and her urgent words leap out:

    He put the Belt around my life –
    I heard the Buckle snap –
    And turned away, imperial,
    My lifetime folding up –

Her images are hers and hers alone: instantly recognisable, perfectly unique, the product of a mind that resisted what the world offered to find its own path. No wonder we can’t let her go; no wonder that we can’t help wanting to solve the mystery of her life. 

Terence Davies’ film A Quiet Passion, out now, attempts a portrait of the society in which Dickinson lived. Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts – the family home, known as the Homestead, is now a museum – she lived a life that was isolated even by the standards of her own day, her brother Austin and her sister Lavinia her companions, her universe a garden and an orchard. (That orchard is in the process of being restored to the state it was in during her lifetime, when apples and pears with names like Westfield Seek-No-Further and Winter Nelis grew in profusion.) Davies, the English writer and director of Distant Voices, Still Lives, has Cynthia Nixon as his Emily; her reading of Dickinson’s poems echoes in the claustrophobic atmosphere the film-maker builds over the course of narrative. 

But what does it tell us, to watch Emily at her desk, quill in hand? Very little, finally: no writer’s life should be matched too closely to his or her work, but the disjunction seems especially glaring in Dickinson’s case. She is impossible to capture. The American novelist Jerome Charyn published a ventriloquised novel of the poet’s life seven years ago, entitled The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson; but that was not enough for him. In last year’s A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, he returned to the research he had done for his novel, holding biography, essay, literary criticism up to the light, re-examining the ways in which scholars and writers have viewed her since her death more than a century ago. And still, it seems, he gets no closer to her: for who can? I return to her work because it is, somehow, unimaginable, the most beautiful writing I know, compelling because there is no answer to be found. The poems simply are themselves. They have to be enough.

What is fortunate is that, in the 21st century, readers can finally see the poems as their author intended them. The few poems published while she lived had their iconoclastic punctuation smoothed down and ‘corrected’; but it was not until 1981, when Harvard released Franklin’s monumental facsimile edition of her poems, that readers could really begin to see what the poet intended for her work, how she wrote, how she made fair copies of her drafts and bound them into little collections of folded sheets. It is very hard to get a sense of this in print, even if her punctuation and capitalisation is retained. Now Cristanne Miller’s edition, Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them, published last year by Harvard, makes those manuscripts accessible for the general reader in an elegant volume at a reasonable price.

But Dickinson was a poet far, far ahead of her time – and perhaps this is best demonstrated by just how well suited she is to the internet age. The Emily Dickinson Archive ensures that high-resolution images of the surviving manuscripts are freely available; with a couple of clicks, the reader can see Dickinson’s work written in her own bold, slanting hand. In her lifetime, Emily Dickinson barely left the house; now she can be everywhere in the world at once, speaking in her own clear voice. 

   A word is dead, when it is said
   Some say –
   I say it just begins to live
   That day

‘A Quiet Passion’ is in cinemas now.

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