I was in shock. I could not even stand up from my chair after I watched this biographical film about the poet Emily Dickenson (Cynthia Nixon).
During her life time, Dickenson (1830-1886) published only 10 poems, but after her death, her sister discovered as many as 1,800 of them. And of course her works have given enormous inspiration to people of later generations.
She lived in reclusive isolation in her house in her small hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. She saw the world only from her own house and from the window of her room on the second floor. But she fought against that world.
What of that world? Lies, deceits, hypocrisy, and so many people spoiled in worldly garbage. If I may add, she even fought against orthodox Christian evangelicalism that didn’t recognize individual diversity. If I may say so, their evangelicalism is rather fundamental instead of orthodox.
Let’s not hurry to the end. Well, the film deals with the problem of faith from the beginning part. The belief of Puritanism in the East Coast of the U.S. was still powerful then. Dickenson was the only student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary who argued against the principal of the school that forced students to recognize their guilt and ask for forgiveness. She felt she did not feel guilty and did not understand why she would have to ask for forgiveness.
She was honest. Although she did not clearly deny God, there seems to have been something in her that couldn’t accept the same God her family and neighbors advocated. He father and others rebuked her.
Her poem says:
The only One I meet is God, - the only street, Existence; this traversed
If other news there be, Or admirabler show – I’ll tell it to you.
The film was shot in the beautiful natural environments of New England. The crew reproduced and used some of the furniture actually found at Dickenson’s house.
Women of high class society engage in rich and intelligent conversation while carrying small umbrellas as fashion. Their conversation topics include marriage, of course, and they discuss and criticize male chauvinism. Dickenson did not publish her works openly because it was considered that women were not qualified for writing literary works.
But what knocked me out the most was Dickenson’s solitude. Her solitude like a deep and empty cave affected the center of my heart – even these words seem superficial. Who has ever expressed the loneliness of existence (Here, I don’t mean acting) like she did?
With time, her relations with neighbors and friends came to and end and she closed herself. After her father’s death, she only wore white dresses and talked meanly with her brother and visitors only from up the stairs. Her younger sister, the sole person who understood her, only reproved Emily, who felt regretful but envied people that were not like herself.
But she still had to be herself.
Don’t say she was fine because she had poetry. Poetry acted as a witness of her life, but did not fill in her solitude and emptiness.
Overall, my mind just sank into quietness.
Her poem says:
There is a solitude of space A solitude of sea A solitude of death, but these Society shall be Compared with that profounder site That polar privacy A soul admitted to itself – Finite infinity.
No one would disagree how wonderful Cinthia Nixon is in this film. She acts two Dickensons: the young Dickenson who was still sociable and whose face was rich in its expression; and the anguished older Dickenson who was dismissive of the world and gradually closed her mind to others. Of course, she received the Emmy and Grammy Awards for this role.
To end this article, I would like to introduce her poem titled “This is My Letter to the World.”
This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me, -- The simple news that Nature told, With tender majesty.
Her message is committed To hands I cannot see; For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!
Before her poems, I cannot help but get lost in vastness and cry.
Dr. Kiyomi Kawano is a feminist psycho therapist and counsellor who provides online counselling on this WAN site periodically. She has published and translated numerous books on feminist psychotherapy.
© A Quiet Passion Ltd/Hurricane Films 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Translated by Naoko Hirose Original Japanese language article