• AurelienThomas

Poets in the Movies: Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s poetry was sneered at by sticklers for decades. Her punctuation? Well, it was - weird. She Capitalised words Quite randomly. She took liberties with phrasing and grammar just for the sake of rhyming. She even dared to indulge in slant rhymes! What didn’t help was that, as a woman, she suffered from that sexist prejudice whereas her poetry was reduced to be merely about a 'feminine' and sickly pathos. After all, wasn't she writing only about flowers and gardening (she was a keen botanist), faith, vanity, and death, death, death, and, well, depressing death?

Thankfully, outside of such sneering academic circles, lay readers knew better and quickly recognised her as a genius! Her writing style was unusual, but here was the mark of an intense and vigorous sensibility, punching feelings on paper in strikingly short but deep verses. As for her morbidity, it wasn’t about being grim. It was about wrestling with the shortness yet wonders of life to be enjoyed to the full. She didn’t follow rules, but, who care? One thing, however, remains: her persona has overshadowed her creativity, and we still don’t know who, exactly, was really Emily Dickinson.

Her biography seems boringly simple, yet it is shrouded in mystery. She had a reputation for being a recluse and eccentric: was she a miser? Or was she misunderstood? Here was a woman who never married (and, in the deeply religious communities of an America then in full Christian revival, this must have been very odd indeed…), was nicknamed ‘the myth Dickinson’, and, we are told, refused visitors in her house, just talked to people through a door, and would only dress in white! Even more controversial: was she lesbian? Some claim indeed that she had an affair with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, who was cheated upon by her husband…

Emily Dickinson, then, as a mysterious figure still wrapped in controversies, surely makes for a great movie character! Two movies, in fact, show her in radically different lights: ‘Wild Nights with Emily’, by Madeleine Olnek (2018) and ‘A Quiet Passion’, by Terence Davies (2016).

‘Wild Nights with Emily’ -my personal favourite- is funny and bubbly. Challenging the grim view of the morbid recluse, its offers in fact a romantic comedy all centred on her secret love story with her sister-in-law.

Now, again, was such an affair an historical reality? I won’t go into that debate (although I am inclined to believe it was). What is striking here is that here’s a work so colourful and silly that you may at times wonder if it doesn’t make fun of itself! But, who cares? It’s highly entertaining.

The forced characterisations may not be for everyone -they seemed surrounded only by strict bigots and sticklers! Some parts, also, are so grossly exaggerated it becomes hilarious. For example, do you know her poem ‘I taste a liquor never brew’? Well, I will let you guess what meaning is given to it in here… Having said that, behind the colourful bubbliness it can be seriously sensible and astute too; for instance, in showing Emily trying hard to get published, contrary to what her ‘myth’ would have us to believe.

Historical accuracies (or not) aside, Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson is brilliant; it’s enthrallingly quirky throughout; and, the visual ending, moving, is also arrestingly and powerfully clever (I absolutely loved it!). It is, in fact, one of the most powerful visual endings I ever came across on screen!

‘A Quiet Passion’, on the other end, goes to the extreme opposite. Here’s a stiff and suffocating atmosphere, reflecting the stiff and suffocating expectations which was thrusted upon women of that era.

Emily, of course (mostly played by Cynthia Nixon) is portrayed as being prey to such moral exactitude too. She is shown, after all, to struggle with faith and her personal relationship with God. However, her eccentricities are acknowledged but put down to a rebellious attitude, an uncompromising and strongly opiniated, although never deliberately provocative, persona, with a powerful sensibility under the veil of a demanded stoicism. She had a boring, secluded life, but did she resent it, longing for better accomplishment? Or was it a choice?

Here, the ‘myth Dickinson’ is displayed in full swing -she is shown dressed in white, talking to rare visitors from her landing only, and, mostly seeking peace and loneliness. Another parti pris which won’t fail to cause debate: she is shown as being an epileptic. Here too: was it historically accurate? We will never know. With a ‘A Quiet Passion’, though, a thing is made crystal clear: the mere idea of her having an affair with her sister-in-law is an absolute ‘no way!’. There is, in fact, a memorable scene where an outraged and angry Emily dares admonishing her brother for his infidelity, implying clearly that such character would never have engaged in an affair, let alone in an affair with a woman (!) married (!!) to her own brother (!!!).

Was Emily Dickinson simply misunderstood, because too wild and free-spirited for a woman of her era? Was she, on a contrary, a morbid recluse, either suffering from a mysterious condition (the nature of which biographers have been racking their heads over for decades!), or, merely bitter at a world demeaning her worth as a female? Was she uptight when it comes to morale, or did she have a passionate affair with Susan Gilbert, something which would have been scandalous at the time? Whichever movie you prefer, it’s clear that beyond the apparent monotony of her life hides a personality like no other, and whose poetry still resonate nowadays. Emily Dickinson remains, after all, one of the greatest poetesses of the English language… And fingers up to the sticklers!

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