New England in the mid-19th century was a literary hothouse, overgrown with wild and exotic talents. That Emily Dickinson was among the most dazzling of these is not disputable, but to say that she was obscure in her own time would exaggerate her celebrity. A handful of her poems appeared in print while she was alive (she died in 1886, at 55), but she preferred private rituals of publication, carefully writing out her verses and sewing them into booklets.
Though she had no interest in fame, Dickinson was anything but an amateur scribbler, approaching her craft with unstinting discipline and tackling mighty themes of death, time and eternity. She remains a paradoxical writer: vividly present on the page but at the same time persistently elusive. The more familiar you are with her work, the stranger she becomes.
An admirer can be forgiven for approaching A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’s movie about Dickinson’s life, with trepidation. The literalness of film and the creaky conventions of the biopic threaten to dissolve that strangeness, to domesticate genius into likable quirkiness. But Davies, whose work often blends public history and private memory, possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject and a deep, idiosyncratic intuition about what might have made her tick.
To Dickinson — played in the long afternoon of her adult life by Cynthia Nixon — the enemy of poetry is obviousness. (It is a vice she finds particularly obnoxious in the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the reigning poet of the age.) A Quiet Passion refuses the obvious at every turn. The romantically disappointed recluse of The Belle of Amherst, William Luce’s sturdy, sentimental play, has been replaced by a prickly, funny, freethinking intellectual, whose life is less a chronicle of withdrawal from the world than a series of explosive engagements with the universe. The passion is not so quiet, really. Dickinson muses and ponders, yes, but she also seethes, scolds, teases and bursts out laughing.
Solitude is part of Dickinson’s birthright — the taste for it links her to Henry David Thoreau, another odd duck plying the waters of Massachusetts — but so are social and familial ties. The first time we see young Emily (played by Emma Bell) she is about to be kicked out of Mount Holyoke College, branded a "no-hoper" for her heterodox religious views. The description is wrong, of course. ("Hope is the thing with feathers," she would write.) Her skepticism about God was more personal than metaphysical. She didn’t doubt his existence so much as question his intentions.
In tracing the flowering of her vocation, Davies pays scrupulous attention to the milieu that fed it. Her formal education complete, Dickinson returns to Amherst to live with her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon); her brother, Austin (Duncan Duff); and her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). On the way, there is a trip to a concert with an uptight aunt who is disgusted by the spectacle of a woman singing and disdainful of music in general. What about hymns?, her niece asks. "Hymns are not music."
But the Protestant hymnal was the metrical trellis on which Dickinson wreathed blossoms and thorns of musical invention. A Quiet Passion suggests that the mixture of austerity and extravagance in her verse was shaped partly by an environment in which religious severity coexisted with aesthetic and intellectual experimentation. (That aunt may have disapproved of the performance, but she still went.)
This is a visually gorgeous film — full of sunlight and flowers, symmetry and ornament — that also feels refreshingly plain. The smooth, almost lyrical movement of the camera conveys lightness and gravity, much in the way that some of Dickinson’s poems do. Like her voice, it seems to have been set loose in time, to rush forward or to linger as the meaning and the meter require, to turn time itself into a series of riddles. The movie lasts for two hours, or 37 years, or the difference between now and forever, or the span of an idea.
It is dominated by a single voice: Nixon’s, reciting stanzas instead of voice-over narration and cracking impish, sometimes impious jokes with the marvelous Ehle. A novel of family life writes itself between the lines, full of memorable characters and dramatic scenes. Parents grow old and die. Austin marries and then has an affair, a transgression that enrages Emily. She and Vinnie seem to exist in precise, kinetic counterpoint, like the left and right hands of a piano étude.
Not everything is harmony. If one of the film’s threads is the existential conundrum that most directly informs Dickinson’s poetry — what it is like to live from moment to moment with the knowledge of eternity — another is the dialectic of freedom and authority that defined her life. Nixon’s Dickinson is a natural feminist, but she also naturally submits, as her siblings do, to their father’s will. When she wants to write late at night, she asks his permission, noting later that no husband would have granted it. She is submissive and rebellious in ways that defy easy summary. Like the other great American poet of her century, Walt Whitman, she contradicts herself.
And though A Quiet Passion is small — modest in scope, inward rather than expansive, precise in word and gesture — it contains multitudes. It opens a window into an era whose political and moral legacies are still with us, and illuminates, with a practiced portraitist’s sureness of touch, the mind of someone who lived completely in her time, knowing all the while that she would eventually escape it.