Terence Davies’s Biopic of Emily Dickinson’s Immeasurable Solitude

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Terence Davies Biopic of Emily Dickinson’s Immeasurable Solitude:
A Quiet Film that Quells the Passion of Dickinson’s Fascicles

Biopics of writers can prove to be even more treacherous than biographies. The latter has the advantage of including a great deal of minor detail. The mosaic of a life, within the trajectory of a published literary narrative, enables the chronicler to intermingle the events of the writer’s age with the daily circumstances of an author’s imaginary projects. The resulting textures enable us to understand the combination of “predestination and contingency” that make up a life, according to Robert Bresson.

Biopics, on the other hand, must compress a life into a few hours of images. In one of the opening scenes in A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson claims that she seeks a “compression of truth” in her poems. Terence Davies’s film falls far short of achieving an insightful compression worthy of its subject. On the whole, in fact, Mr. Davies’s account of Dickinson’s life misses the point: it’s not her life that should have been the subject of his film, but the life of her poems. “Dare you see a soul at white heat?” Despite being well-intentioned, the film misses not only the white heat of the poems, but the soundless, incandescent dots that encompass the life that produced those poems.

Despite the superb efforts of an outstanding cast, one only occasionally gets a glimpse of the mystic smoldering that inhabited Dickinson between 1860 and 1865, when her life was permeated with an enormous outpouring of poetry. A Quiet Passion in no way gives any sense of what it might mean for an individual to write hundreds of poems in a few short years. As I tell my students, she was producing a poem at the rate of one every three days, and often these were poems that would have been seem as supreme moments in an average poet’s life. To maintain this level of production is beyond the capacity of genius, which draws upon raw inspiration as much as rigorous intellectual calculation. Over the course of five years Dickinson performed as a vatic intermediary between some unfathomable Source and the language of her birth. Her translation of these diurnal elopements is perhaps beyond the capacity of our art to represent, and I suppose I should give Davies points for an earnest effort.

Nevertheless, Davies opts to provide comic relief rather than be faithful to the dominant tensions in Dickinson’s life. One can understand the temptation to provide a comic foil in a cinematic biography of an enigmatic poet. The Society for the Study of Oscar Wilde must be thoroughly enjoying this implicit homage to the master of the sardonic epigram. I can’t fault the dialogue as dialogue; it’s far better than the average play, but the caustic amusement generated by the conversations between Dickinson and her sister’s friend, Vryling Buffum, hardly compensates for the absence of T.W. Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson from the account of Dickinson’s life. If the second half of A Quiet Passion begins to drag, it is in large part because we do not see Dickinson’s excruciating ambivalence about literary success. Helen Hunt Jackson pleaded for Dickinson to send a manuscript of poems to be published, and she demurred.

It is in the relationship between Dickinson and Jackson that one could have created a second half response to the cat-and-mouse pas de deux of Higginson and Dickinson in the first half. His famous rejection of her work does not deserve ignominy, but leaving it out almost defies the limits of credibility. Would one do a biopic of Arthur Rimbaud and leave out any mention of his letters to his former schoolmaster? Furthermore, I believe that the absence of Higginson and Jackson more or less cancels any dramatic possibility of explaining the fascicles.

A Quiet Passion depicts her creating fascicles on two occasions, but a person with only casual knowledge Dickinson will most likely have no idea of why Dickinson is being shown sewing pages together. On the first such occasion, we hear a voiceover reciting “I reckon – when I count at all –”, but there is no indication of what that poem might mean within the context of the fascicles. The fascicles themselves, it could be argued, become a refuge for Dickinson in which she can experience the entrance into the heaven of published poets. To show her reading the poems – after she has sewn the pages together – and then jotting down alternative words alongside some of her lines would have been to demonstrate the ongoing nature of her compositions, her openness to the recoiling of meaning within the arbitrariness of human life.

The choice of poems by Davies is quite peculiar. Poems that offer themselves as monologues practically begging for recitation, e.g., “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain,” are bypassed for minor work. It would be a little bit like shooting a biopic of Sylvia Plath and leaving out “Lady Lazarus.” Where are the extraordinary poems that reveal the hours spent in the garden, which is hardly employed for much more than a stage direction to enable Dickinson to spend some time along with Reverend Wadsworth, who is immediately importuned by Dickinson as to the value of her writing. If one wishes to demonstrate the confinement of Dickinson to an immurement of Personal Vision, then why not make use of “An Angle of a Landscape”?

The film concludes with the often reproduced photograph of ED as a young woman, along with her birth and death years. Call me a pendant, but the “cast” of her books should have preceded the actresses and actors roll-call. I would have like to have seen a bibliography of her volumes of poetry, concluding with the very recent Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them. In providing us access to Dickinson’s fascicles, Miller has done more pertinent and useful work on behalf of America’s greatest lyric poet than Davies’s atmospheric, scatter-shot film has any chance of accomplishing.

Final Sidenote: As any scholar of Dickinson knows, it is the biography of the poems that becomes a posthumous drama worthy of a film. The familial quarrels over her literary remains have had a parallel, if slightly more subdued, set of head-on collisions amidst the defenders and detractors of her poetry. Do not mistake me here: it is surprising how many dismissive remarks have been made about her poetry in the past century. In particular, her prosodic ear has been subject to a smear campaign on a scale that no other major poet has ever had to endure. If I can live long enough, I wish to devote a whole chapter in a book on prosody and rhythm to Dickinson’s capacity for metrical nuance.

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