At home with Emily Dickinson

The following opinion piece by Dr Helen Koukoutsis from the School of Humanities and Communication Arts , was first published (opens in a new window) in The Conversation.

Cynthia Nixon (left) and Jennifer Ehle, who plays Vinnie Dickinson in the film

Amherst, Massachusetts is a quiet college town in Hampshire County about two hours' drive west of Boston along the Massachusetts Turnpike. The Connecticut River flows in blue veins through the County and encounters valleys and hills thickly populated with maples that turn brilliant red in autumn.

In one of her 1862 poems, Emily Dickinson captures the autumn of Amherst in anatomical metaphors and paints the season on a stormy day that haemorrhages in hues of red – blood, scarlet and vermillion. The poet communicates the scene in common metre:

The name – of it – is "Autumn" -
The hue – of it – is Blood –
An Artery – upon the Hill –
A Vein – along the Road –

Great Globules – in the Alleys –
And Oh, the Shower of Stain –
When Winds – upset the Basin –
And spill the Scarlet Rain –

It sprinkles Bonnets – far below –
It gathers ruddy Pools –
Then – eddies like a Rose – away –
Opon Vermillion Wheels –

Written during the American civil war and after a personal "terror" that Dickinson never discloses, the poem's speaker paints nature in a violent way. The violence can be read as a metaphor for war, or personal pain, or even ecological disaster. We can never know with Dickinson's verses. Coded language is her forte; it sums up her poetics and the art of telling "all the truth", but telling it "slant".

She believed that "The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind", as though the poet (and reader) must somehow learn to dabble in a kind of cryptography to guarantee artistic immortality. She escaped every so often upstairs to the highest point of the house – the cupola – that looked out over Amherst. Here she read Shakespeare, wrote and felt, perhaps, that she could "Dwell in Possibility" for all eternity.

Home as a holy space

In 1862, she was 32 and at home in Amherst with the "Hills … and the Sundown – and a Dog – large as myself" as her only companions. She was at the height of her creative output (averaging a poem a day) when she made this claim to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Higginson was a writer, activist, and Colonel who would go on to edit Dickinson's first volume of posthumous poems, but in 1862 he was confronted by a poetess who wished to know if her "Verse is Alive" and if, we assume, it will go on breathing after her death? He made her think otherwise.

In 1869, when Higginson invited her to Boston, she thanked him and replied: "I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or Town". "Home", she had already made up her mind in 1851, "is a holy thing".

Dickinson took immense pleasure in the notion of home as "holy" space because it afforded her refuge from, and a substitution for, the church she had given up attending in her twenties – citing a disrespect for doctrines.

Dickens' Home

Dickinson's home is now a museum. peppergrasss/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The evangelical revivals that swept the town in the 1850s and 1860s were a call to all to join the church and accept Christ as saviour. Her immediate family, including her father and brother – prominent town lawyers – confessed their sins to Christ in the local Congregational Church. Dickinson was unconvinced by the fervour and remained unconverted all her life. She resolved within herself that while,

Some – keep the Sabbath – going to church –
I – keep it – staying at Home –
So – instead of getting to Heaven – at last –
I'm – going – all along!

Turning her bedroom into a sanctuary, and reinterpreting the stalwart evangelicalism of her time, she composed her thoughts into verse. Writing took place by lamplight and, usually, after a long day of domestic chores.

Dickinson lived most of her life in her father's Homestead – a red-brick mansion on Main Street that was built in 1813 by her paternal grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson. Like most middle-class girls in Amherst, she received an education through the local Academy where, boasting in a letter to her friend, Abiah, she studied

Philosophy, Geology, Latin, and Botany. How large they sound, don't they?

With this letter, Dickinson sent her friend a geranium leaf and urged her to create her own herbarium. There was no whimsy intended in the advice, for Dickinson was already creating an herbarium of her own that would eventually house over 400 plant specimens from around the gardens of the house in North Pleasant Street (the house Dickinson lived in from 1840-1856) and neighbouring woodlands. The herbarium was one of the first creative undertakings by Dickinson and a sign of the devoted gardener she would later become.

When Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (a finishing school) in 1847, she was expected to complete four terms. She completed only two. In The Bonds of Womanhood, U.S. Historian Nancy Cott explains that finishing schools or private boarding schools were popular among the middle-classes mainly because they propelled girls, both morally and intellectually, towards wifehood and motherhood. Like Dickinson's closest friend, Susan Huntington Gilbert, most girls delayed marriage by taking teaching posts in town schools. Susan eventually would give up her post to marry Austin Dickinson – Emily's brother.

Dickinson's education was likely cut short due to illness. With growing eye problems in the mid-1860s and an invalid mother to care for in the mid-1870s to early-1880s, Dickinson never married. Naturally, she had been in love and had known love on more than one occasion. Allusions to suitors, marriage and wifehood can be found in dozens of love poems written during the most productive writing period (1861-1864) and in three draft letters to an unknown recipient named "Master" that were found among her scraps of paper when she died.

Drafted roughly between 1858 and 1861, the letters border on melodrama, but also reveal Dickinson's command over the erotic:

Master – open your life wide, and take me in forever, I will never be tired – I will never be noisy when you want to be still.

Her last known love was a man 18 years her senior; she was 48 when she fell in love with Otis P. Lord and candidly professed to sleep with him

as if [they] were a country – let us make it one – we could make it one, my native Land – my Darling come oh be a patriot now.

When Lord proposed marriage that same year, she replied: "Don't you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer – don't you know that 'No' is the wildest word we consign to Language?" Her refusal hardly seems contradictory to the views of love and marriage at the time.

A Quiet Passion

There is no mention of Lord in Terence Davies' film of the poet's life, A Quiet Passion, and this omission – among many others – situates Dickinson's narrative in myth. To tell this myth, Davies draws heavily on the Dickinson clichés (some of which formed when the poet was still alive) – the wayward recluse; rejected lover; diseased and ailing, unappreciated poet; indescribable genius.

We are acquainted more determinedly with the "myth" when Dickinson (played by Cynthia Nixon) dons her white garb for the first time almost as a mark of losing her father. At this point in the film, she manifests into one of her poems - the symbolic "Wife – without the Sign" who appears to be subconsciously dealing with a kind of Electra Complex.

Dickinson writing by lamplight is Davies reminding us that this is indeed Amherst in 19th-century New England and that Dickinson would have had to have grown "accustomed to the Dark/ When" the light would have been "put away –" each night.

It is fitting that the second half of the film that focuses on Dickinson's isolation at home is set almost solely in a kind of morbid darkness to emulate the creative mind of a poet that had almost certainly become "A still – Volcano", "a Loaded Gun". The darkness also intentionally moves us towards the poet's death, which Davies portrays unnecessarily with a sense of terror.

In 1886, just after Emily Dickinson passed away in her father's home, her sister, Lavinia, found hundreds of poems in the last drawer of the poet's dresser. Included in this discovery were, what one of the poet's editors, Mabel Loomis Todd, called, fascicles: forty booklets bounded by Dickinson between 1858 and 1864. Despite Dickinson's protestation that "Publication – is the Auction/ Of the Mind of Man –", these booklets of verse, according to Dorothy Oberhaus in her study of Dickinson's Fascicles (1995), were an engagement "in a kind of self-publication".

Of the 1789 poems Dickinson wrote in her lifetime, only ten appeared on 18 separate occasions in local newspapers and a book anthology. On each of these occasions, the poems were cited "anonymous" and she would not have received any fee for their appearance. At home, Dickinson was a cook, prize-winning bread-maker, and gardener who sent hand-picked flowers to her friends, or home-made currant wine, fruits and recipes for cakes, and of course her own private messages in verse.

A Quiet Passion includes appropriately – in each crucial scene – the voice of Dickinson/Nixon reclaiming her "Letter to the World" (her unacknowledged poems) that was never properly appreciated in her lifetime.

Today, the Dickinson Homestead is a museum, and the poet's bedroom – situated on the second floor overlooking Amherst through the cycle of seasons – is a space reserved for pre-booked retreats by writers and artists who wish to tap into their own creative "genius" for an hour. I wonder what Dickinson would think of our intrusions in her "chamber"?

A Quiet Passion will open in Australia on June 22.

All poems have been cited from the Ralph Franklin 3 volume edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1998), and all letters have been cited from the Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward edition of The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1997)


19 June 2017

Media Unit