Emily Dickinson in a “Quiet Passion”
By Skip Sheffield
Why do poets have to die before they are recognized and honored?
Emily Dickinson has only become more celebrated since her death in 1886 at age 55. She was the subject of an award-winning play, “The Belle of Amherst,” brilliantly portrayed by Julie Harris. Now comes “A Quiet Passion,” which is a tour de force by actress Cynthia Nixon.
British director Terrence Davies delves into the soul of America’s most famous female poet. To say Emily did not have it easy is a gross understatement.
“I could not stop for death,” she wrote in one of her later poems. “He kindly stopped for me.” She thought about death a lot.
Emily Dickinson was very shy. You could call her a recluse. Yet she is perhaps the finest female poet America ever produced. She did most of her writing late at night. For that she had to ask permission from her harsh, disapproving father, played by a scarcely recognizable Keith Carradine.
Director Terence Davies (“The Deep Blue Sea”) obviously has great admiration for Emily. He begins with scenes of her as a child (Emma Bell), enrolled in a women’s seminary. The religious life was not for Emily. She was often accused of blasphemy. She was egged on by her very progressive friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who was an early feminist.
“When there is nothing, there is God,” Emily muses. She had an inferiority complex too.
“I am a kangaroo among beauties,” she bemoaned.
Her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) was dismissive of her literary talent. His wife Susan (Jodhi May) sniffed “hers is the literature of misery.”
Emily became afflicted with something called Bright’s Disease, which is incurable and affects the kidneys. In her lifetime she was published only in a small local paper, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Her true riches were found in manuscripts discovered after her death- nearly 1,800 poems.
Creative originality is a gift few people have. This movie is of most interest to English majors like me. Others may find it overly long and tedious.