His Emily Dickinson: The Visual Poetics of Terence Davies’s “A Quiet Passion”

By Kathleen B. JonesMay 2, 2017

His Emily Dickinson: The Visual Poetics of Terence Davies’s “A Quiet Passion”
IN THE ICONOGRAPHY of American poetry, an early daguerreotype from 1847 stands out. A young woman, probably no more than 16, is seated, her left arm resting on a table near a closed book. Wide-eyed, looking frail, she stares directly ahead. It’s an image impossible to read without bringing what we now know about its subject to our viewing of it. And yet, what we know has always been shaped by those who guarded or gardened in her legacy. Who is Emily Dickinson? What is her poetry?

Family and friends, scholars and critics, and creative artists of all sorts have altered the artist’s portrait and her poetry in every generation since her death in 1886. Interpretations have shifted from the “Belle of Amherst” to a kind of “Madwoman in the Attic” to the avant-garde feminist modernist whose experimental, law-breaking approach to language “swe[pt] away the pernicious idea of poetry as embroidery for women,” in the words of poet Susan Howe.

Prolific writer of nearly 1,800 poems, most produced during the Civil War years of 1862–’65, Dickinson remained almost wholly unpublished in her lifetime. In the week following the poet’s funeral, her sister, Lavinia, revealed that Emily’s resistance to publicity had sustained a prodigious workshop of creativity. In 1890, when Poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Todd Loomis and T. W. Higginson, became an unexpected success, efforts to publish the full corpus of her writing began. But it was not always exactly her writing: these first editors altered the appearance of Dickinson’s poetry in significant ways, titling poems, standardizing punctuation and spelling, and otherwise bridling the poet’s deliberately unconventional lexicography.

The practice of editing Dickinson continued into the middle of the 20th century, as her manuscripts changed hands before being sold to Harvard University, with the portion belonging to Mabel Todd that had been donated by her daughter to Amherst College remaining there by agreement with Harvard. Then, in a 1955 three-volume collection edited by Thomas H. Johnson, the divided and distorted parts of Dickinson’s poetic legacy were reunited and restored to their original incarnation, as far as modern typography could manage.

As invaluable as Johnson’s collection has been, another shift took place in 1981 with the publication of R. W. Franklin’s The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, a facsimile assemblage of her so-called “fascicles” — a term coined by Mabel Todd to characterize the book-binding strategy Dickinson experimented with from about 1858–’65 whereby she stitched together sets of poems. Franklin’s “Variorum Edition” of The Poems of Emily Dickinson followed in 1998, along with his “Reading Edition” of the poems (cited in this essay as F #). The variorum edition aimed to present a comprehensive collection of her works, with a view into her compositional process. The 1,789 poems mushroomed into almost 2,500 texts in Franklin’s collection. Yet, as Franklin noted in his introduction, the number of manuscripts she produced may have been twice that many, given Dickinson’s technique of destroying working drafts once a fair copy had been made while continuing to work on the same poem in subsequent versions.

Diagram of Dickinson’s Writing Process from Franklin’s "The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition."

Beginning in 1994, scholars began work on electronic archives of Dickinson’s manuscripts, enabling greater access to the materials. More recently, Marta Werner’s ambitious digital project, Radical Scatters: Emily Dickinson’s Late Fragments and Related Texts, brings the nonlinear methods of hypertext to bear on Dickinson’s fragmentary, singularly material poems, permitting the reader to appreciate Dickinson’s spatial poetics. But digital reproduction also alters the shape of the poems. This year, the Morgan Library and Museum mounted an exhibition, The Networked Recluse, with an accompanying catalog, featuring a select group of artifacts from Dickinson collections, in order to “bridge the gap between the facility of the digital and the physical limitations of the originals” and thus to serve as a reminder that “the story of Dickinson’s manuscripts, her life, and her work is still unfolding.”

Now into this mix comes a filmic evocation of Dickinson — Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, which opened in Los Angeles on April 21. Deftly and sensitively directed, with a remarkably witty screenplay, the film conveys a real depth of feeling for Dickinson’s poetry while avoiding the trap of trying to represent the truth of that poetry through the facts of the author’s life. More a meditation on the reclusive poet’s audacious reconstitution of form and meaning, in her life and life’s work, than a conventional biopic, A Quiet Passion unexpectedly validates film as the medium particularly suited to the plasticity of Dickinson’s poetic vision and writerly practice. Exquisitely played by Cynthia Nixon, Emily Dickinson comes to life in a fullness of grace, intelligence, and acerbic wit, powerfully capturing the oft-misunderstood poet’s aesthetic sense and sensibility.

The many versions of Dickinson’s poems found in her archives counterpoint each other, the variations riddling each poem with indeterminacy. Davies adds texture and nuance to Dickinson’s characterization by juxtaposing Nixon’s mellifluous readings of Dickinson’s poems with imagery from Dickinson’s life. The effect creates contrapuntal claims on the viewer’s attention, enabling poetic truth to “dazzle gradually.”

In what follows, I offer an experimental take on Davies’s film, interweaving fragments from an hourlong interview I conducted with the director in New York with excerpts from Dickinson’s poetry, in order to convey a sense of the film’s aesthetic. This kaleidoscopic review of A Quiet Passion juxtaposes the director’s interpretation of Dickinson with a reading of the film’s narrative arc.


Terence Davies: The poems … have to act as music. Either they’re used as counterpoint, as in the very first one, or something like when she’s been diagnosed with Bright’s disease, there’s the meditation on “Now, I have to really face this finally,” and “How long will it actually be before this happens and I am faced with that ultimate day,” which is why I have the light go out on her face. Because, suddenly, something in her has died. Some other poems might be just as good, but they might be saying the obvious, or they may be saying what the image was saying — and it was Hitchcock who said if the image and the music are doing the same thing, one of them is redundant. And he’s right!


Two Butterflies went out at Noon

Davies’s Emily Dickinson gradually transforms from the young apostate, who has renounced evangelism in favor of her own way to faith, into the poet fully confident of her own voice. Yet even young Emily, played with winsome verve by Emma Bell, evinces a steadfast belief that her chosen cocoon — the close, confined circumference of familial home — will enable her to come to terms with God, if (s)he exists; with mortality, with which she bargains by crafting immortal words; and with the cultural limits imposed on her sex, which she imaginatively transgresses:

To all surviving Butterflies
Be this Fatuity
Example — and monition
To entomology (F 571)

Entomology has been warned. And so has young Emily Dickinson.

A Quiet Passion opens in a grand, formidable setting. Miss Lyon, stern teacher and increasingly frustrated evangelical inquisitor of Mount Holyoke, has summoned the young women to testify. “You have now come to the end of your second semester. Some of you will remain here […] Some of you will go out into the world […] I put to you a question of the utmost importance, which concerns your spiritual well-being. Do you wish to come to God and be saved?” The acolytes or hopeful ones move to either side of the room. Emily remains steadfastly at the center of her own inquiring self.

“Have you said your prayers?”
“Yes, though it can’t make much difference to the Creator.”

Astounded, the teacher berates her. Emily will not budge.

“I wish I could feel as others do, but it is not possible.”
“You are alone in your rebellion, Miss Dickinson. I fear that you are a no-hoper.”
“Yes, Miss Lyon.”

The chrysalis of Emily’s resistance to “conversion” — in the many senses that word will come to express in her life — sloughs off its outer layer and heads for the sun.

For each extatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the extasy — (F 109)

Besides providing a chronological “beginning,” Davies’s choice to open with Emily’s turning away from evangelism — not moving toward “the world” but into the inner sanctum of her familial home — has a deeper resonance.

Terence Davies: I read six biographies [of Dickinson]. … It got to the point where I really just couldn’t take on board any more information. I thought, well, what you’ve got to do after reading all that is see what comes to the surface, what you think is important. … The things that were important for me anyway … included the fact that she went through a continuous spiritual stress. As I did myself. … She was convinced utterly that we have a soul. Yet, she asked, what if there is no God, what do you do? And it throws open many moral and ethical questions. Is there even any point in being moral and ethical? And she steers a very strange path between “there’s no God” and “yes, there is.” … But there’s one poem I think that comes closest to despair:

I reason, Earth is short –
And Anguish – absolute –
And many hurt,
But, what of that? (F 403)

Emily’s point of view about home — “Oh life, oh home, how wonderful you are!” — remains the center of the film’s narrative. In a 360-degree pan, the camera’s eye becomes Emily’s, gazing at her assembled family, each in quiet self-absorption. As it comes full circle, time and death have entered the room; Emily seems terrified.

Terence Davies: Yes, it is terror. I said to the actor, when we get round to you, again, something inside you has died. Because I remember looking around at my own family and thinking, “What if they were dead?”

I went to thank Her —
But She Slept —
Her Bed — a funneled Stone — (F 637)

Marking the boundary between Emily’s youth and adulthood, the camera closes in on each Dickinson (except the mother!), frozen in daguerreotype, slowly aging into their older selves. In the following scene, a no less recalcitrant Emily greets us as the adult poet on a spiritual quest, finding in incandescent language — and in her familial connections and friendships — the kind of ecstasy denied by a more religious conformity. “I can’t imagine myself beyond my family. Amongst strangers!”

Davies is masterful at portraying the poet in all her facets, but most especially in the pleasures and dangers she discovers in her intimate attachments with friends and family, attachments interlaced with the ever-present sense of loss and time’s passing. “Oh, I shall miss you if you go; your honesty is sublime,” Emily declares to Miss Buffam. It is a melancholic line delivered with a smile, representing that paradoxical intermixing of sadness with wit that gives Dickinson’s poetry the power of shockingly new insight.

Life is death we’re lengthy at,
Death the hinge to life (F 502)

And the tenderness Davies shows between Emily and her sister-in-law, Susan, suggests a sexual spark between them, despite the director’s self-proclaimed indifference.

Terence Davies: I don’t really care whether she was epileptic or not. Nor do I care whether she was lesbian or not. I just don’t think those issues add to my knowledge of her or my love of her work. If there were those things, they didn’t arise in me and I didn’t think I could dramatize them properly.


I heard a Fly buzz — when I died

Not only in the scenes of the poet sewing her “fascicles,” but in moments of reverie, when we see Dickinson observing the world around her, as if absorbing matter directly, A Quiet Passion captures the literal and metaphorical physicality expressed in Dickinson’s poetry. And in those darker moments, as the illness that will take her life wracks her with unforgiving pain, Davies shows us another materiality that will be transformed into something both beautiful and frightening. Or, when the “looming man” visits Emily in a state of almost ecstatic reverie, an erotic transgression of the boundary between body and soul also becomes a moment of terror.

Terence Davies: It’s very interesting that she uses the word “looming” — that’s her language. And that has an air of menace about it. And I suspect I want you to make that both menacing and seductive. Because I think actually no one could have lived up to her standard of what she thought the perfect man would be. … Nothing would be as good as this thing, which she wants. When you long for something to happen and it doesn’t, two things can happen. Either it increases its power over you or it makes you very, very close to despair. … And those words are hers: “Please let him come before the afterlife; please let him not forget me.” Wonderful things for her to say, but there’s such sadness in them.

Dickinson’s writing process (and it’s true for many writers) contains an element of what might be called self-collaboration. As Dickinson returned to previously “finished” poems, other choices entered the poem’s space, unsettling meanings. She included alternative word choices in her copied poems, creating an opportunity for an imagined reader to engage in a process of dynamic reinterpretation. For Davies, film is a collaborative process of ongoing discovery.

Terence Davies: I only ever do the same thing. I write it as I see it and hear it. And that means that every track, pan, dissolve, everything is in it, including copyright. … And I’ve always done it that way. … But, it doesn’t come page one, page two, and so on. One sequence will come and then another. Sometimes it’s just a matter of writing an idea down … and nothing more. And after about six months or so those notes coalesce into a sort of story. … Usually one or two big sequences come straight away. … I always listened with my inner ear and watched with my inner eye. … And it’s the same with the actors. I say, I don’t want you to act I want you to be. Which is much more difficult. And with the mise-en-scène. What is important … is texture. … But texture is something we don’t actually consciously see; but we feel, we feel it. … So it’s really important you get the texture right behind the actors. And what they’re wearing is another thing. They’ve got to look as though they wear them. I don’t want them to look as though they’ve just come out of hair and makeup and costume, because I don’t believe it. So you get little things that nobody but me would probably notice. But when Emily waves goodbye to Miss Buffam, she turns and the back of the dress is frayed and the clips don’t quite hold. As if she’s unraveling a little.

A precious — mouldering pleasure — ‘tis
To meet an Antique Book —
In just the Dress his Century wore —
A Privilege — I think — (F, 569)

Terence Davies: The film, of course, changed in process; it always does. … Someone said once, films are the death of three things: the death of the idea, when you actually write the screenplay; the death of the screenplay, when you begin to shoot it; and the death of the shooting, as soon as you start to cut it. And it’s true. But what also happens is because other people are bringing their artistry to it, they change it and make it better. Nothing thrills me more than someone doing something, especially with a line that I had not thought of. I tell you, it’s so fabulous. And there are two I always quote. In the scene with the Reverend Wadsworth, about posthumous reputation, the line I wrote was “Ah, but to be racked by success.” And Cynthia Nixon read it more wittily as “Ahhh, but to be racked by success!” Oh, it is just a fabulous interpretation. And when Emily’s locked in her room and Vinnie comes to the door, she says, “Emily, Emily” … that’s all she does, in that second word, drops her voice. But my god, it’s just fabulous.


Because I could not stop for Death

One can plumb the archives eternally, every dive leading to new ways of seeing Emily Dickinson. Davies’s film is no exception.

Terence Davies: Before we started shooting, we sent [Jane Wald and the Emily Dickinson Museum] the script. … And I said, you know … it’s not going to be an accurate picture of her life. It’s done through my subjective prism and subjectivity is always partisan and unfair. We were shooting in this lovely church in Hadley. Exquisite American interior. … But the scene was written for exterior too. When we looked out and it was all modern; there’s no way we can do that. So I said, look we’ll contain it within the church. So we set up the wide, and we were at the back of the church and somebody had not put the brake on the camera, which was on tracks, and it drifted down, and I thought, that’s the shot. That’s the shot! And all we do is crane down when she sits, and I thought, that’s it. … That’s just sheer luck. And when we were dubbing it, when her family comes to get her from the seminary, and in the final moment just before we cut to the woman singing “La Sonnambula,” the editor just placed the opening chord on that last scene’s shot before we cut. And it brought it to life! A simple thing, and it was brought alive. … It’s really incredible, just a simple thing like that … can change an entire scene.


This is my letter to the World

Every reading is a misreading, or a partial reading leading to the reconstruction of new wholes in the unfinished business of discovering Emily Dickinson and her poetry. Fittingly, Davies ends his film by reversing the imagery of the older Emily into the young girl immortalized in the daguerreotype, with the chords of Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” sounding in the background.


Kathleen B. Jones’s essays and short fiction have appeared in Fictional International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Briar Cliff Review.

LARB Contributor

Born and educated in New York, Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for 24 years at San Diego State University. In addition to numerous academic works, she has published two memoirs: Living Between Danger and Love (Rutgers University Press, 2000) and the award-winning Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Among her numerous awards, she is a recipient of multiple grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities, writers’ grants to the Vermont Studio Center, and an honorary doctorate from Örebro University, Sweden. She recently completed an MFA in fiction and lives in Stonington, Connecticut.


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