In the past several years, we’ve seen dramatic screen revisions of that virginal, saintly image. The 2016 film “A Quiet Passion” depicted the poet as very ambitious and sometimes petulant: At one point, her father complains that a plate is dirty, so she smashes it on the floor. This year came Molly Shannon’s portrayal in the comedy “Wild Nights With Emily” — a fun-loving eccentric who pursued a passionate affair with her sister-in-law, Susan. And now, most extravagantly, there’s the thoroughly modern Emily of Apple TV Plus’s new streaming series, “Dickinson.” Played by Hailee Steinfeld, she is magnetic and rebellious. She takes opium and dresses like a man to sneak into a lecture on volcanoes. She twerks at wild literary fetes, set to a soundtrack by Billie Eilish and Lizzo.
Some of these updates reflect changing literary scholarship — drawing, for example, on the research of Martha Nell Smith, who used computer imaging and infrared technology to reveal that Susan’s name had been crossed or cut out from many of Dickinson’s letters and poems. But these repeated revisions also stem from a deeper desire: We want the poet’s life to reflect our contemporary values. Her ideas resonate with us so strongly that we want to imagine a more relatable Emily, one we would understand, like and befriend if we met her today. Her poetry, which navigates the syntax and metaphysics of death and immortality, transcends its moment. Shouldn’t the poet?
While experts still debate whether, and how badly, she wanted to publish in her lifetime, “Dickinson,” like “A Quiet Passion,” comes down firmly on the side of believing that Emily actively sought fame. In the series, she fights with her father, who fears she will besmirch the family reputation, about this desire; she even persuades her brother to submit one of her poems under his name for a poetry contest. This modernized Emily struggles against patriarchal authority to share her work and take her rightful place in the literary canon. She’s a role model for our “Lean In” moment, which celebrates female aspirations and encourages women to be more openly demanding in their artistic and professional pursuits.
This new Emily is also more progressive in other ways, speaking about race, gender and privilege in a vocabulary more suited to the 21st century than the 19th. In one scene, she argues that her amateur production of “Othello” should cast a black actor in the title role. In another, she blurts out that she feels like a slave because her father prohibits her from publishing her poetry. In reality, Dickinson came from immense privilege — her family members were major members of, and contributors to, the Whig Party — and some maintain that her poetry reflects those politics, often assuming “an aristocratic language of rank, royalty, and hereditary privilege,” according to Northwestern University professor Betsy Erkkila. The show’s clumsier and more didactic political moments seem less rooted in historical fact than our contemporary yearnings: We want to believe that a poet who was aesthetically radical would have convictions about social justice that set her apart from her peers.
This impulse also manifests in how “Dickinson” treats the poet’s sexuality, bringing it out of the margins of her life and making it central to her identity. Its version of Emily is unabashedly queer: The very first episode shows her and Susan kissing in slow motion under a tree, as the rain drapes around them. Even as the characters must hide their affection, these swooningly romantic scenes feel like a gift for modern audiences, who want to liberate all the queer couples throughout history who have been reductively labeled as “intense, close friends.” The series’s glimpses of their supposedly chaste “sleepovers” in Emily’s twin bed feel like an old, varnished painting that’s been restored with the latest solvents, to give it a brighter sheen. This flagrantly desirous Emily reflects our sex-positive sensibilities: On some level, it’s hard for us to imagine such audacious, powerfully charismatic art being made by a repressed spinster.
Because her poetry’s genius speaks to us across centuries and was so little appreciated in its own time, it’s tempting to imagine that its maker would share our modern social mores. When I was a teenager, though, I didn’t need poetry to be sexy or cool. I didn’t need for it to feel like a high-budget music video; I needed poetry to help me feel less alone in the world.
And so, even though I couldn’t connect to the Emily in her portrait, I still felt a planetary pull to her poems. I had never seen anything like that em dash, slicing the page with such a flourish, with such extension of thought. It was a slow stop but with a smoother syntactical edge. It seemed sexier than a period — longer, bold. Her syntax seemed so different from anything I’d read before, inverted and riddle-like, inviting me to keep investigating. The lines looked sparse, but when I read them aloud, they had heft and fervor. I whispered her words between the stacks in my school’s small library: “I felt a funeral in my brain.” For the first time, I read literature that bolted my body with a fusillade of feeling. Dickinson herself describes this somatic shock in a letter (and Steinfeld repeats it in the series): “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”
Even with all these different interpretations of Emily, we may always get her wrong. Her life is a code that we may not ever fully crack. But maybe it’s all right for her to remain out of reach, eluding attempts to take in the full scope of her experience. I often tell the students in my workshops that it’s okay for their poems to have secrets. They don’t have to reveal everything to their readers, all at once; part of the poem can be just for them.
In some ways, Dickinson’s verse keeps teaching me that lesson. Her work forces us to read and reread. It tackles the harder, abstract nouns — grief and hope and delight — and the seemingly unanswerable questions that prose can’t address. We keep rebooting Dickinson, revising and remaking her life story, for the same reason we keep returning to her poetry. That witty aphorism, dense metaphor and haunted, hymn-like meter all point to a sensibility that’s fundamentally opaque — a private inner life that a single, sanitized biography could never capture. Generation after generation, the elisions of her poetry leave space for us to imprint ourselves.