Dickinson: The Virtue of Being Invisible
Updated: May 26, 2022
Split the lark and you’ll find the music
Watching Dickinson, a dark comedy series about the solitary poet has reignited my interest in her and her work as any good semi-biographical TV show or movie should do. However, there’s not much regarding the life of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). We do know that she is perhaps the greatest American poet to have ever lived. With only 10 poems published in her life, it was her death that gave her immortality when her full collection of poems were discovered by her sister Lavinia Dickinson not long after she died.
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone
Dickinson is a humorous take on her family and her life in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1850s as well as a study of how her effervescent words on death, immortality, nature, and love came to be. She was known among the people of Amherst as peculiar and reserved, almost fully embracing a misanthropic life in her house as she got older. The underrated and talented Hailee Steinfeld plays Dickinson with an ebullient passion, angry at the traditional gender roles she refuses to abide by and entranced by her sister-in-law Susan, who in real life she may have been romantically involved with based on the exegesis of her letters by many scholars. Set during a time of frustrating patriarchy, polarization, and lots of death, the genius of Dickinson isn’t necessarily found in its dark comic relief (though at times it can hit the mark) and can be jarringly uneven. The dialogue and sensibilities are contemporary while the music is anachronistic, belonging to 2010s America. In other words, with Dickinson in her 20s, it’s a millennial reimagining of the 1850s. It even hints at America’s current polarization, relating it to the divide of the 1850s leading up to the Civil War. The Dickinson kids are all abolitionists but one of the strongest scenes between Emily and Henry - a free Black writer leading the Amherst abolitionist movement with his head constantly on a swivel for slave catchers - allows some perspective for the young Emily Dickinson that could easily be blinded by her New England luxury.
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
The show is all conjecture when it comes to the accuracy of the characterization of Emily Dickinson and even though the costumes and production design are period-accurate, it’s easy to enjoy the modern, rebellious behaviors and speech. It even features Henry David Thoreau as a disappointing loner and the landscape architect of New York City’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead, as an eccentric inspiration to Emily. Through the inane dropping of Opium like its acid, women twerking in their bulky, layered gowns, and Victorian waltzing to “I Like Tuh'' by Carnage, Dickinson still manages to be a moving representation of Emily Dickinson, a sublime study of her unconventional verse, and how she reckoned with potential fame from deciding on whether to have her poems published. While the season 2 finale was both beautiful and underwhelming (season 1 and 2 on Apple TV+), season 3 should include the turmoil of the Civil War and speculate more on why exactly Emily Dickinson receded to productive isolation in the 1860s.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
What Dickinson truly excels at, however, is utilizing the unknowns of Emily Dickinson’s life in a bildungsroman series about an expressive young woman who is constantly misunderstood, repressed, and overwrought with emotion. Emily Dickinson is a creative genius who is consistently overlooked but gets too ahead of herself when she is finally seen. The allure of Death haunts her in season 1, as it does in her poems, but it is the themes of immortality, fame, and the frustrations of youth in season 2 that really hit the chest.
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons -
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes -
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us -
We can find no scar,
But internal difference -
Where the Meanings, are
Very rarely has there been a show so adept at capturing the agitation and spiritual growth of youth. Where the passions we feel are as strong as they’ll ever be, waiting to be fully cultivated and released; yet they rarely are because you are so often undervalued and underestimated by those that surround you, besides a select few. Where it seems like everything that matters, at least to yourself, is lost on society, and stoicism and forbearance is the only defense mechanism to the disconnect of your everyday existence. Where the simple, human act of finding yourself is seen by your peers as a political statement.
In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much - how little - is within our power
Steinfeld is a magnificent actress, probably the best there is at playing earnest young people. Nominated for an Academy Award in her first role in the Coen’s True Grit, then displaying the insecurities of youth and adolescence in the great Edge of Seventeen, she shines just as bright in the similar leading role of Dickinson. Also, her music doesn’t get near enough love as, say, Ariana Grande or Lorde ( though Lorde deserves all the praise). Where Edge of Seventeen is about loving yourself in a world that crushes you, Dickinson is about finding yourself and your voice in a world that doesn’t care about you or your voice. In fact, the Emily Dickinson of this show knows she’s awesome (During a water cure treatment: “You won’t be the same, sick melancholy women you are now.” Emily: “What if that’s my brand?”) that her poetry is awesome, and assumes that the minute she’s published she’ll be famous; this running assumption may be a character flaw and a hole in the plot but there’s a reason the writers go with it and ultimately it pays off when Emily is published and fame is not immediate nor imminent.
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -
If Emily Dickinson had to escape humanity in the 19th century when people actually read books (“Novels and chill.”) and appreciated art as more than something to take a selfie with then I can’t imagine what she’d be doing if she were alive today. I doubt she’d want fame in the 21st century either. In a world of increasingly unimaginative thinking and overstimulation, mainly from the internet, solitude and invisibility have never been more appealing. I don’t claim to know everything, but I do believe that having an open and intellectual mind is harder than ever these days. Though Dickinson is set in the 1850s, it does a spectacular job of showing this. Being young, fluctuating between feeling everything and feeling nothing, having a constant existential crisis, and trying not to be bogged down by the inability to express yourself creatively because the world is losing its head and no one really cares anyway.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
The great 20th-century poet T.S. Eliot said in his controversial 1919 essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” He countered Wordsworth’s famous claim that poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Eliot goes on, “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” And maybe this is why I prefer poetry before the 20th-century because Eliot’s view of poetry is very modernist, stripping away the very essence of what makes poetry a beautiful art form. To read Dickinson and Wordsworth, obviously, believing that emotion and, especially in the case of Dickinson, personality, had nothing to do with their poems is preposterous. It is true what Eliot says about those wanting to escape emotion and personality but that is simply impossible. Even reading Eliot’s poems seems to refute his own modernist view that poetry is a tree to be cut down and left fallen rather than used as firewood to burn for warmth. In Dickinson and perhaps in real life, Emily Dickinson could not have written her wonderful poetry without feeling what she feels and being who she is. She’s a wild spinster buzzing like a bee, itching to express, discuss, and live. But when she finally has a poem published, those things become harder than ever to do.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise - you know!
How dreary - to be - Somebody!
How public - like a Frog -
To tell one’s name - the livelong June -
To an admiring Bog!
Emily Dickinson once said in a letter that “if fame belonged to me I could not escape her.” In episode 8 of season 2, Emily wakes up to her first published poem in the Springfield Republican. When she goes downstairs to greet her family to celebrate and talk about her poem, however, she finds that they can’t see her. She’s literally invisible. The ghost of “Nobody” who has been haunting her all season accompanies her as she wanders the town, listening to people discuss her poem (“Everybody just gets to talk about me regardless of whatever they say is true?”). She’s horrified by what people say and realizes that she is more misunderstood than ever. In a conversation with Nobody, a scene set to a Mac Demarco song of all things, Emily discovers that fame is kind of like death yet she’s not completely gone. “I’m like a beautiful perfume… with the notes of a song.” Invisible. “The world runs on invisible things Emily Dickinson,” Nobody tells her. “Many wonderful things are invisible. The air we breathe... the breeze that blows… love. Being invisible, it’s a power.”
“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
Soon after, Emily finds her way into her brother Austin’s barn where Henry and his group of Black abolitionists meet to discuss the fight to end slavery. On this particular night, they are raising funds for John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry. These are the people, Emily realizes, that make a difference. What difference is she making with her work? Though the show is historical fiction, how many names really are missing in the history books that hid in barns and discoursed about how to change the world for the better? Does fame matter? Are you choosing the right path in life? Invisibility and anonymity. These are virtues we don’t give enough credit. Especially in a world where we are constantly making ourselves seen online and are as vulnerable as we’ve ever been through social media. Mary Ann Evans, or as we still know her from her pen name, George Eliot, was the queen of being invisible.
From her novel Middlemarch: “...for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Terrance Malick’s A Hidden Life is also a must-see movie about invisible resistance. Who are the ones quietly making a difference today? We don’t know and that is the marvelous point.
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true-
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe-
The Eyes glaze once - and that is Death -
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
Emily Dickinson knew that anguish breeds authenticity. That we are truly ourselves when alone with the door closed or breaking down into complete vulnerability, shedding tears and vocally releasing everything that ails us. Maybe this is why so many of us are afraid to be alone with ourselves, afraid of silence. Maybe it’s why we only put the good version and people-pleasing version of ourselves online. But unfortunately, that isn’t how the world works. Silence has never been a virtue and vulnerability is still scary and rare. As I said, it’s hard to have an open mind in a world that pushes you to close it. To be deemed a complicated person for wanting simple things like silence and mature conversation. “You have wars to fight Emily. But you must fight them on your own, invisible. Unseen.”
Dickinson and Emily Dickinson’s words are for the deep feeling individuals of the world. For those whose favorite word is melancholy and every time it’s uttered, they feel a paradoxical hit of serotonin. For those who are self-aware, usually holding their tongue but occasionally lose it under a spell of passion and anger. For those who know it’s not all black and white but feel lost in the black. For those who deliberately make others squirm uncomfortably with their silence. For the neurotic and moody perfectionists. For those who hate noise. For those who delude themselves into self-loathing without realizing they must actually love themselves because they’d rather be alone with their minds than in the company of people. For those who swear by the aphorism, “I love humanity, it’s people I don’t like.” For those who, despite it all, still get the fear of missing out. For those whose personalities are forever inconsistent. For those who love easy and are annoyed easily. For the ones who somehow find the good and gorgeous in between the bad and bullshit. For those who hide behind a book instead of a screen. For the learners and compulsive gatherers of knowledge. For those who like so many things and have a multitude of interests. For those who love to make art, experience and create meaningful things. For those who savor solitude yet feel loneliness in its extremity. For those who are inspired the most by love. But most of all, it is for those who know that feeling invisible is a good thing.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
Here are some more great words to ponder:
From The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
What is essential is invisible to the eye.
James Baldwin on choosing the good within ourselves:
Love has never been a popular movement. The world is held together, really it is, held together, by the love and the passion of a very few people. Otherwise, of course you can despair. Walk down the street of any city, any afternoon, and look around you. What you’ve got to remember is what you’re looking at is also you. Everyone you’re looking at is also you. You could be that person. You could be that monster, you could be that cop. And you have to decide, in yourself, not to be.
Carl Dennis on the life decisions we make and wondering about alternative lives:
The God Who Loves You
It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you’d be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week—
Three fine houses sold to deserving families—
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you’re living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you’re used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.
Rudyard Kipling on endurance and staying sane in an insane world:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Emily Bronte on being brave and seeing the Light. Also one of Emily Dickinson’s favorite poems:
No Coward Soul is Mine
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven's glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear
O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears
Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.
And finally, here’s some Edward Hopper, an artist who intimately understood solitude, pre-internet exposure, and aching loneliness: