Emily: The Quiet Earthquake

A Quiet Passion

a film directed by Terence Davies

Amherst

by William Nicholson
Simon and Schuster, 287 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Emily Dickinson
Mary Evans Picture Library/The Image Works
Emily Dickinson

“There are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,” Sarah Orne Jewett wrote in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), “—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance.”

Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, recently restored to what is thought to be its original appearance, with rose-patterned wallpaper discovered during the project, is one such shrine of solitude, visited every year by thousands of hushed and reverent pilgrims from all over the world. As they enter the Homestead, on Main Street, in Amherst, Massachusetts, they pass through what were once Dickinson’s extensive gardens, the subject of an ongoing archaeological excavation. Then they climb the stairs to the upper sanctuary, where they are greeted by a facsimile of Dickinson’s immaculate white dress—its fragile original is at the local historical society—hanging, ghostly, in a glass case in the hallway leading to the poet’s bedroom.

Dickinson’s writing desk (another facsimile, since her actual desk, along with half her manuscripts, is owned by Harvard) is believed to be where she wrote her almost two thousand poems, most of them unknown at the time of her death in 1886 at the age of fifty-five. Pictures of two of her favorite authors—Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot (“What do I think of Middlemarch?” she wrote. “What do I think of glory?”)—hang on the wall. From her front bedroom window, Dickinson could monitor visitors arriving in carriages from Boston; from the side window she could spy on goings-on next door at the Evergreens, the Italianate villa of her melancholy brother, Austin, his wife, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, and their three doomed children, Ned, Martha, and Gilbert.

Our classic writers are accorded certain dramatic roles they are forced to reenact in the popular imagination: dissolute Poe; expansive, multitude-embracing Whitman; rascally, wise-cracking Mark Twain. The picture that most visitors are likely to bring with them to the Homestead was established in the introductions to the first volumes of her poems and letters, issued posthumously during the 1890s: the New England nun immured in her bedroom in her virginal white dress, the poet who wrote, from her own experience, that “Renunciation—is a piercing/Virtue,” the poignant line break in the manuscript (renunciation is a piercing, first, and a virtue only after) registering the pain of her self-imposed exile on Main Street.

During the past thirty years, following the publication in 1979 of Richard Sewall’s landmark biography of the poet, feminist responses to her work from Adrienne Rich and others, and the facsimile publication in 1981 of her remarkable manuscripts (often with unresolved word choices suggesting alternate versions of well-known poems, a “fluid” approach to poetic composition clarified in Cristanne Miller’s painstaking new edition of Dickinson’s poems…



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