Emily Dickinson: More than a feminist hero

As Terence Davies' new film exploring the life of American poet Emily Dickinson reaches cinemas, we consider the innovations in her work – and the limitations of viewing her only as a feminist hero

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 23 Mar 2017

Some writers' images are seared into the collective cultural imagination, even if their writing is left to be covered by dust in the classics section of the book shop. It’s easy to recall the familiar photographs of Oscar Wilde with his flowing hair, neck tie and velvet cape, or the picture of a graceful Virginia Woolf looking directly at the camera lens with an engaged stare. Emily Dickinson is one of those writers. Her image is more recognisable to readers than many of her poems.

The iconic image of Dickinson is of her teenage self, sitting at a table with a book, holding what appears to be a flower. Her hair is pinned back and her face seems to exhibit both serenity and joy. This monochrome image of Dickinson has fed into the myth-making surrounding the American poet and helped to establish her reputation as a thwarted and reclusive writer. The image is tinged with sadness because we know that the young woman in the photograph is destined to lead a stilted life of repressed confinement. Her fierce intellect and talent for writing will remain a secret, locked away until long after her death.

Recognised as an American writer of renown, Dickinson’s work is responsible for creating shivers of despair in high-schoolers across America – a sentiment shared by teenagers this side of the pond forced to decode reams of iambic pentameter in the state-prescribed reading of Shakespeare plays. But aside from her half-hearted teenage audience, her work has been rediscovered and reclaimed as part of the feminist movement. It’s easy to see why. We don’t know the real reason for Dickinson’s solitude in her Massachusetts family home (some have speculated that she had social anxiety or was restrained by overbearing parents), but her life remains a powerful example of the suppression of female brilliance.

She chose to live a restricted, interior life rather than face an outside world where she would always have to take on the secondary role of an inferior woman. For feminists, Dickinson’s experience has become symbolic of the loss of talent that results from women not being able to fully participate in public life and flourish as members of society. In an act of sisterly solidarity, it was her sister Lavinia who posthumously discovered her poetic scribblings, leading to their eventual publication and the recasting of Dickinson as one of the great American poets. There’s even been an unsuccessful campaign to put Dickinson on a dollar note.

The limits of a feminist reading

Dickinson once wrote in a letter that "the past is not a package one can lay away." The feminist recovery of Dickinson as an example of the historic and contemporary issues which suppress female writing talent, and which lead to the struggle for women to find a place among the glittering line-up of famous writers, goes some way towards explaining her unusual life of seclusion. And her rebranding in a feminist light has brought Dickinson’s work to a young female audience who may not have otherwise chosen to read an obscure bunch of poems seemingly about the obstacle of death.

But, while necessary, the feminist analysis of Dickinson’s life has also led to her work being easily and infuriatingly categorised as mere, one-dimensional ‘feminist writing’. The context of her inhibited life is often emphasised above and beyond the actual poems themselves. In a similar way, Sylvia Plath has become synonymous with her turbulent relationship with Ted Hughes and her spells of mental illness, rather than known for the ways she innovated confessional poetry and her knack for redrawing familiar images. Dickinson’s legacy is in danger of becoming restricted to the marketable slogan of her simply being a feminist hero.

Emily Dickinson: poetic innovator

As well as describing the social constraints placed on women, Dickinson’s work takes on the hardy subject of grief and the inevitability of death in original and inventive ways. Her work returns again and again to our fear of mortality, providing a stark emotional contrast to her quiet life. She inhabits the view of the dead in Because I could not stop for Death, and uses the ceremony of death to look at the turmoil of mental anguish in her poem I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.

For newcomers to her work, Dickinson's poems may seem dark, drab and as fun as a trip to the dentist, but her writing keeps a wry semblance of humour, even when she explores the darkest of subject matters. "Hope" is the thing with feathers is a battle call to optimism and is the poem to turn to if you are facing trials and tribulations. Her reputation for focusing on the melancholic moments of life is somewhat misleading; Dickinson’s skill is in weaving the spectrum of human emotion together. Death is explored with humour, hope is intertwined with difficulty. Her poems always sit in that in-between, ungraspable place where feeling can’t be easily or simply expressed.

The sheer number of authors that you’re 'supposed' to get around to reading, if you want to maintain your crown as literary connoisseur of your drinking buddies, only grows longer and more improbable as you get older. The book industry’s response is to tempt you in any way they can and, in the current climate of female-empowerment bestsellers and a certain 'Leader of the Free World', being a feminist hero is a pretty good bet to add to sales. But reducing Dickinson’s work to a soundbite does her a great disservice.

Yes, she is a great example of feminine talent and verve, in choosing to live life according to her own rules despite the opinions of others – but her work is complex and contradictory and not easy to categorise. In a distant book utopia, writers wouldn’t need to be described in pithy, repetitive slogans. But as utopia seems to be very far away, perhaps we can add 'innovator of poetic form' and 'courter of idiosyncrasy' to Dickinson’s feminist hero tag. 

A Quiet Passion is in cinemas from 7 Apr