Aussie peering into the Leverett Library

“May I have your permission to write poetry at night, for quiet’s sake?”

So speaks the woman in the movie A Quiet Passion. She is Emily Dickinson, and the film, one of the best I’ve ever seen, shows her talking to her father.

I wondered: What does she mean, “for quiet’s sake?” That by writing at night she’ll avoid disturbing the louder daytime events, where she must take her place in a regulated home with parents, siblings, servants, guests, church-going, embroidery, and entertainment, while if she writes at night no one will miss her and find her remiss in not fulfilling her duties?

Is it to quiet her mind, that is often agitated with impressions, questions, and doubts? A sense of the alarming difference she feels from others, and especially from other young women?

Or is it because she’s unafraid of the quiet of the night, its ghosts and shadows, the underworld emerging into moonlight, bringing up fears and trepidations?

I have never been one of the Maid’s ardent fans, though I live close to the home she inhabited in Amherst. Something too enigmatic about those verses, too much space in the lines, too many dashes and hyphens. Too breathless.

The movie itself is exquisite, written and directed by the great British writer and director, Terence Davies. It’s not the first time that I notice how many non-Americans are devout, even passionate, fans of Emily Dickinson.

How I felt for her as depicted in A Quiet Passion! Yes, she had a house and servants, she had a loving family and clever, supportive friends. But the loneliness of a 19th century long-distance woman poet! The desolation behind fan-shaped dresses and tight bodices that barely let you breathe, the hair combed evenly and intransigently above her head, as if to keep that genius under lock and key.

What is it like to go through life so unrecognized? I don’t mean that the talent is unrecognized or that she has no fame, I mean the lack of seeing the particular genius of the person, the thing that makes her her and no one else, the gift that wants to bloom and give to so many so much but must remain unacknowledged and cloistered, sheltered only by the night. What’s it like to be invisible in society and labeled a spinster, and worse—a woman poet? What can possibly be weirder than that?

So, she stays upstairs, secluded and hermetic, because at least that way she doesn’t have to look into eyes that can’t see past their notions of right, wrong, gender, God. Better to look at flowered walls and gaze outdoors through pallid lace curtains than to see yourself in other people’s eyes and know that no one is a greater stranger than yourself, no one is so alone.

The English romantic poets lived a little earlier than Emily Dickinson: Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley. They would hobnob with each other, drink together, read their poems to one another. If Wordsworth walked the Lakes, the others would travel the Continent, gathering adventures, sharing ideals and verses, competing when they weren’t, on occasion, falling in love.

Who could Emily Dickinson go carousing with? Who could she have lunch with and trade verses? Who was there to inspire and get inspired by a woman poet who, finally, had no choice but to walk a very lonely journey according to her own star, which finally led her and kept her upstairs because the rest of the world was forbidden to her?

My heart so goes out to someone who goes through life without that recognition—not of her genius, but of who and what she really is, that special flame that burns only in her, her unique kind of brilliance.

I found myself thinking of the many women I’d known who’d been born too early, who would look out the window above a sink full of dirty dishes, bewildered by why they felt like strangers in a strange land when they’re told by everyone around them that their life is good, that they did well, raised a fine family and kept a well-trimmed home.

My mother was not well educated. I imagine that early on she felt her greatest ambition was to marry and raise a family into some kind of middle-class respectability, a far distance from how she herself had grown up. Isn’t that what everyone told her? But even as a girl she loved to study, and as an adult she would get that baffled look in her eyes, as if thinking: This is it, right? There isn’t any more to this life that I lead, right? I shouldn’t expect anything.

Emily Dickinson had more confidence in those doubts, you couldn’t easily talk her out of them, so she stayed upstairs in her little room, an audience of one, and found solace in her own company and the wild imaginings of her own soul.

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