Yesterday afternoon, Susie and I saw a new film about the life of Emily Dickinson starring Cynthia Nixon. It is a dark, slow moving, deadly earnest movie in which Nixon’s voice is heard at many points reading one or another of Dickinson’s poems. Despite a fine performance by Nixon, I left the theater profoundly disappointed, and yet at the same time aware that perhaps what I wanted to see in the movie is essentially impossible for a director or writer to communicate. Let me explain.
Emily Dickinson led a quiet, outwardly uneventful life in the New England college town of Amherst – one of its few tourist destinations is the Dickinson home, which I, like virtually everyone else in town, visited. She never married, she never had a love affair, so far as we know, and only on rare occasions did she venture beyond Amherst even to the nearby city of Springfield. She was also the author of one thousand eight hundred poems, and is arguably the greatest poet the United States has ever produced. She had a rich, deep, complex mind and as complicated a relationship to the Christian religion as any poet who has ever lived. And yes, I include in that estimate John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The surface simplicity of her poetry is as deceptive as the surface simplicity of a Bach Invention.
The movie does a rather good job of portraying Dickinson’s rebellion against the rigoristic piety of nineteenth century New England Protestantism, but it does absolutely nothing to explain, or even puzzle over, the sources and dimensions of her poems. There is a great temptation, of course, to fill this post with endless quotations from her poems, a temptation I shall resist. Let me cite just one phrase. In a poem ostensibly about the pink-tinged clouds one sees as the sun goes down, she writes ”angels wrestled there.” Where we see quiet natural beauty, Dickinson saw blood sports. If you pause and think about that fact, you will perhaps begin to gain some insight into her poetic vision.
The director makes some obvious and inevitable choices: after Dickinson dies and her coffin is being put in the horse-drawn hearse, we hear Nixon’s voice: “Because I could not stop for death/Death kindly stopped for me.” The film ends with Nixon reading “This is my letter to the world/That never wrote to me.” But it also makes some really appalling choices. When Dickinson is given her brother’s new baby to hold, she looks down at the infant and says, “I am nobody, who are you?/Are you nobody too?” This has got to be the wrongest reading of a great poem ever offered.
How can we communicate, in a film, or indeed in a book, the creative process of a great poet, a great composer, a great novelist, or a great painter? The splendid movie, Amadeus, succeeds brilliantly as a movie, but only because it is really about Salieri, not Mozart. Mozart’s creative genius is treated in the film as incomprehensible – Salieri says God is dictating the notes to Mozart.
Perhaps I ask too much. It must be sufficient that a movie, as the word suggests, move us. If we could explain how Dickinson did it, then we could all do it, and that, alas, is a blessing that New England’s God has chosen not to bestow.