Emily Dickinson is More Than Just a Mascot for the Melancholy



I distinctly remember the first time I read Emily Dickinson. I was thirteen and my English teacher presented me with "Because I could not stop for Death". "You'll love her poems,” she said. “They're very (a hint of a smile - my idolisation of Morticia Adams and Lydia Deetz wasn't subtle enough at this age to go unnoticed) ..,gothic" She was right. I fell for Dickinson’s language instantly. Her work is deliciously macabre, which was everything I relished at that age. 

“I felt a funeral in my brain, 
And mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That sense was breaking through’...
“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome ecstatic experience...”

The recital of her lines rolled off my tongue. I savoured their delightful marriage of optimism and surrender. However, there was something about her writing that differed from anything gothic I'd encountered before. The gothic genre generally transforms the horror of real-life tragedy into an inflated dramatisation that is so hyperbolic and gimmicky that it's no longer scary, but rather fun and seductive. The real scary things in life - casual heart-break, prosaic grief, the suited power of corrupt politics - are never so imaginative or shrouded in mystery and, therefore, are much harder to stomach. At thirteen, the outlandish portrayal of 'darkness' as cobweb-veiled and blood-stained was a welcome escapism from the intense fear of very ordinary things brought on by my anxiety. But there was something about Dickinson’s poetry that I couldn't put my finger on. Yes, the language had a hue of the cadaverous, but it was harder to read. Not because it was more intellectual than anything I'd read before. In fact, it was more simplistic. It was quieter - almost just a whisper. It was as if her poems didn’t want to take up too much space on the page and yet, there was nothing polite about them. They had intense passion, confined and condensed into short darts which only served to make the emotion and meaning of the lines more concentrated, like alcohol with no mixer. Dickinson cut to the quick. She wasn't masking reality - she was laying it bare. 

Dickinson is one of those women whose personal life seems to be more well-known than her actual art. Her work is often overshadowed by the story of how she lived her life as a recluse. I’ve read accounts where her genius is under-appreciated amongst some intellectuals because of her popularity amongst angsty teenage girls - as if this discredits the quality somehow. But I've always felt that angsty teenage girls, due to them being at a real transitional period in life, are the ones who are asking all the big questions and are often the most difficult to please.

The recent film about Dickinson’s life, A Quiet Passion written by Liverpool-born Terence Davies, has been met with a mixed response, but I’ve come across a few articles that have expressed surprise at his representation of Dickinson as chatty, witty and sociable, as though this doesn't fit the idea we have of Dickinson formed in our collective heads. I’ve read more than one review that has scoffed at the film’s casting of Cynthia Nixon as the poet, with remarks that it’s trying to be a costume version of Sex and the City. This made me angry. Why is it so impossible to imagine that a lady who wrote about death and misery and the fragility of life couldn't also have a laugh amongst her friends? Are people boring because they're more insightful and intelligent? Was she morbid just because she chose not to conform to conventionality? Surely these aspects are what made her more interesting a companion - and writer? Also, mental health isn't a constant, concrete state. It is fluid and dynamic and a person can be depressed one day and feel quite elated and relaxed a few days later, as Dickinson herself understood, "For each ecstatic instant we must in anguish pay in keen and quivering ration to the ecstasy."

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion. Rights: Hurricane Films.
I may be over-reacting, but it's this lazy pigeon-holing of people, especially women, into the specific archetypes that society decides for them that stops us seeing each other as complex and nuanced human beings. It allows us to take away each other’s humanity and individualism, increasing the already momentous difficulties of how to treat mental health with the proper levels of respect.  This is why I applaud Davies for choosing to enlighten the more witty, sarcastic aspects of Dickinson, whilst not taking away any of her seriousness, to create a film that displays a sort of Scouse spirit despite being set in 18th century America. 

The film opens with a confrontation between Dickinson and a school teacher who is preaching about the word of God and how all the pupils must be saved. Dickinson does not wish to be saved, because she still remains undecided as to what her beliefs regarding the creator of the world actually are. She is alone in the crowd of girls and stands her ground face to face with the tyrannical preacher. This sets the tone immediately of Dickinson as an unconventional, inquisitive woman who questioned and explored, not just accepting what she was told. She was no quiet misfit, but strong and brave in the unwavering face of authority. 

‘You are alone in your rebellion, Miss Dickinson,’ remarks the teacher. Indeed, she was. 

The question is not how you feel, but how you ought to feel.’ What a line! This line embodies the whole concept of organised religion and social control, a concept that is still prevalent today.

Emily replies, ‘I wish I could feel as others do but it is not possible.’ 

This is the general theme along which the film continues. Dickinson is continually alone and feeling a way she shouldn’t, but she is alone in rebellion and this is the important distinction. She’s not an odd outcast. She is dearly loved and respected by those around her, but she refuses to think in the same way as them, merely because it’s the easier thing to do. She is a fierce fighter for what she believes in. She is the only one in the family brave enough to contradict her father (there’s a particularly good scene where her father chastises her for leaving a dish dirty so she smashes the dish and calmly remarks ‘It is dirty no longer.’) She never really expresses a desire to marry, even though the film is careful to convey that she does feel sexual desire.  She refuses to go to Church even when her Father tries to persuade her. ‘Your soul is no trivial matter’ he says. ‘I know, Father, that’s why I’m so particular in guarding its independence,’ she replies. She’s passionate about the abolition of slavery and there’s a scene where she has a spirited argument with her brother about what can only be described in retrospect as feminism. ‘Is a woman destined only for decorousness?’ she cries. 

In short, the film is faithful to portraying the writer as a spirited woman who maintains her own power within the confines of her surroundings – a power which made her a woman greatly ahead of her times.  When we view her like this, we can’t help but see her choice to be a hermit as a conscious withdrawal from the distracting influence of a society that she couldn’t be comfortable in without denying her true self. 

The film doesn’t shy away from her acute loneliness and depression, especially during the period when she chose to fully retreat from the world. She clearly suffered from deeply affecting insecurities, not believing she was the type of woman a man would want to marry. The script is also permeated with references to death, the theme that Dickinson was so obsessed with. But Dickinson’s awareness of the constant presence of death is what made her ultimately relish life, nature and family so much. She wasn’t sure about her beliefs in the afterlife so made the most of the Earth she lived on and those who inhabited it. What’s important about this film is that, whilst it does display her tragic side, it doesn’t fall into the trap of painting her as a melodramatic, Miss Havisham type, as it very easily could have done. She isn’t conveyed as a spinster or a fairytale witch. She is shown as remarkable and brave and the master of her own independent mind and soul.

Truth is what scared the thirteen year old me and made her seek escapism in the misfit land of the gothic novel. Truth is what makes the poems of Dickinson so difficult to read. She wrote her own truth, pure and untainted by the beliefs of her age.  A fear of truth leads us to label other people, because it makes them easier to deal with, excusing ourselves from the pressure of dealing with their more difficult sides, though this also makes us miss out on the remarkable brilliance of what makes them unique. We need to accept the truth that assumptions based on labels can never represent the unique palette of every individual. 

Emily Dickinson was a contradiction. She was many things, all at once. To quote the documentary film of her life, My Letter to the World, she wrote poetry that was "the volcano, the look of agony, the gun...but to a nice little rhyming scheme." She was a dichotomy - because she was a human being, not a myth. 

What can we learn from Dickinson today? Many, many things: a love of nature, an acceptance of mortality, the great power that words and imagery can have, the importance of the imagination as an escapism when reality becomes too much to endure ("Poems are my solace from the eternity that surrounds us all"), to trust yourself above all things, appreciation for those who are different and don’t follow the crowd. We can learn to stop making women two-dimensional. We should be past the days of making women the things of myth and legend: the simple cut-outs of witch/princess, innocent/fallen, good girl/slut. We should be past the days of trying to put people into boxes. We are in the age of inescapable truth, of contradictions, of messy, mixed-up journeys of self-discovery and if we want to understand the world better and be ahead of our times, just like Dickinson, then we need to accept that people are complex. Sometimes they retreat and hide away. Sometimes they explode forth, "a loaded gun". And they have the right to be "the guardian of their own souls"