Emily’s devotion to her craft of poetry by Richard Jones

A look at A Quiet Passion (PG)

emilyEMILY Dickinson’s genius as a writer and poet was only recognised some decades after her untimely death at 56 during the mid-1880s.

She lived a reclusive life in Amherst, Massachusetts, right through the Civil War years with some of her neighbours knowing little – if anything – of her in person.

Emily is sensitively played by Cynthia Nixon, a role diametrically opposed to her turn as Miranda in the long-running HBO series: Sex And The City.

Patriarch Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) is a forward thinking man for his time. A successful lawyer, Dickinson believes in education for girls at a time when it’s not all that common even among the prosperous middle classes.

Edward instructs his children including Emily’s brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle, Pride And Prejudice) that the butler and maids are “employees, not servants.”

Austin Dickinson is a lawyer like his father but is forbidden to join the Union army fighting in the Civil War. It transpires that Edward Dickinson paid the government $500 to send someone else in Austin’s place.

The family home is gloomy and, you suspect, rather cold and musty. Every now and then we catch a peep of a tiny log fire burning away but there’s no massive blaze in a huge hearth to warm the stark and austere living rooms.

Emily and sister Lavinia – known to everyone as Vinnie – enjoy the company of amusing, non-PC friend Miss Buffam (Catherine Bailey).

Miss Buffam is great company especially during spring and summer months when the three women can wander in the extensive Dickinson family gardens.

Miss Buffam’s take on the all-pervading Christian ethos of the northern USA states, marriage and the holier-than-thou standards of the period send titters of mirth through Emily and sister Vinnie.

Emily has a really sharp intellect and from time to time takes quite a harsh view of life. She is, however, rather turned on in her late 40s by the sermons of a younger married parson.

Emily and Vinnie invite the parson and his priggish wife to afternoon tea one day only to find that the pair will drink just water. No tea, thank you, and certainly no coffee.

Emily’s health is declining as she leaves her forties behind and enters her fifties.

Although the family doctor diagnosed Emily’s illness as Bright’s disease, a severe kidney ailment, later 20th century diagnoses suggest she may also have suffered from extremely high blood pressure.

Her fits and seizures in the privacy of her own chilly bedroom become more frequent and it’s not long before Vinnie and Duncan (and his wife) have to start making arrangements for Emily’s funeral and burial.

It’s all quite sad, particularly when you realise her hard work and scholarship won’t be recognised until many years after her death.

As the poet said herself addressing her reclusive lifestyle and her complete dependence on family members: “I only want my family. It is not perfect.

“It is not paradise. But it is far better than anything else I could know.”

And how about this whimsical stanza about a falling hot-air balloon:

The Gilded Creature strains and spins

Trips frantic in a tree

Tears open her imperial Veins

And tumbles in the Sea.

Less than a dozen of her poems were published during Emily’s lifetime.

But her devoted sister Vinnie discovered all the rest in Emily’s bedroom-study and throughout the family home and to date a total of 1,775 surviving poems have now been published.

Emily Dickinson has long been recognised as one of the 19th century’s most outstanding poets.

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