“How Soft This Prison Is”: Reading Emily Dickinson in Quarantine

As we spend our days in isolation and uncertainty, we thought it fitting to revisit the poems of Emily Dickinson, who led a singular and solitary life, reminding us of the importance of maintaining a rich inner world.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) spent the majority of her life in and around her father’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived and died in relative seclusion. She never married, rarely travelled, and most of her interactions with people occurred through letters and other correspondence. By the final years of her life, she barely even left her bedroom.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Nowadays, while a pandemic sweeps the globe, most of us spend our days confined to our bedrooms or our living rooms, only interacting with those we care about from a distance. Technology helps, to be sure. But there’s no doubt that a lot of us are feeling isolated and anxious during this uncertain time. Who better to turn to for some solace than Emily Dickinson?

Maureen N. McLane calls Dickinson “a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty.” Dickinson often wrote about death and the nature of consciousness, the negation of self and the discomfort of being a body in the world.

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Big mood. Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which puts a modern spin on the poet’s life and work. Photo: Giphy

She was no stranger to solitude. In a letter to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Dickinson wrote: “I would paint a portrait which would bring the tears, had I a canvass for it, and the scene should be—solitude, and the figures—solitude—and the lights and shades each a solitude. I could fill a chamber with landscapes so lone, men should pause and weep there; then haste grateful home, for a loved one left.”

There’s a lot of debate about why Dickinson self-isolated, whether it was by choice or whether she was forced into seclusion due to illness of some kind (mental or otherwise). But I like what poet Adrienne Rich supposes: “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

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Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dickinson chose seclusion because that’s what she needed in order to write the astonishing 1,789 poems she left behind.

And what her poems reveal is a sharp-witted, fierce, intelligent woman, who reinvented poetic form and carved her own path in life to the bewilderment of those around her. In short, her poems reveal the vastness of a rich inner life, something we could all work to cultivate during this time. When your external world is limited to a small town, or as is the case for many of us now, to house and home, then our inner worlds become our most important dwelling places. Per Dickinson:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

(632)

The mind, to paraphrase Milton, is its own place and can contain the whole sky or sea or anything besides, including you and me and everyone we know. Its capacity for imagination and wonder and expansive thought is unfathomable. More than this, our minds give us the ability to read and think and empathize with others, allowing for the expansion of our inner world.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

(1263)

Poetry is exceptional in its capacity to transport us. Through her imagination and her poetry, Dickinson could traverse any distance. By returning to her poems, and following her example—her keen observation of the beautiful details of her immediate world and her willingness to look within herself for substance and meaning—we might make the distance we all feel right now a little more bearable. After all,

Distance – is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated – Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

(1155)

Here, Dickinson tells us that distance is not about physical space, the lengths a fox or a bird can travel. But the final line is tricky to decipher. Dickinson delights in ambiguity (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”), taking her readers to a place where meaning loses stable footing. “Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved” could mean that distance is nothing more than the space between the speaker and their beloved. But “thyself” could also be an address to the reader or to the speaker herself, suggesting that physical distance pales in comparison to metaphysical distance, the distance that we feel within. Knowledge of self, having an inner life as sharp and imaginative as Dickinson’s, is how we really overcome distance. And we will overcome this distance.

Dickinson sums it up best in one of my favourite poems:

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“I dwell in Possibility” manuscript. Photo: Emily Dickinson Archive

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

(657)

Although we remain confined to our houses, Emily Dickinson shows us one way, at least, that we might use this time to dwell not in the physical isolation we feel, but in the inherent possibility of our own minds.

For more on how poetry can be a balm in times of solitude, check out Serena Ypelaar on Wordsworth and the transportive power of nature.

The Backbone of a Good Biopic

Biopics offer a glimpse into another person’s life, but if presented poorly, a bad biopic can undermine the truth. So what makes a compelling biopic, then? 

By Serena Ypelaar

Biopics: we see them every year, covering all kinds of notable individuals and their lives. Put simply, a biopic is a film that interprets a person’s life and condenses it into a consumable feature-length story.

The biopic is a tool of remembrance which, done ethically, has the power to record and preserve the achievements of someone’s life.

We’ll be talking about biopics a lot in this column, but what makes a biopic successful? Here are three key elements creative teams highlight to execute a good biopic:

1. Uniqueness/Promising Talent/Struggle

The subject of the biopic usually has some kind of trait, talent, or struggle that sets them apart from others. This can come in the form of disability, a gripping dream or obsession, or a special talent. In The King’s Speech (2010), one of my favourite biopics, Bertie (the future King George VI of England and father of Queen Elizabeth II, played by Colin Firth) has a speech impediment, true to life. His speech impediment causes tension when he’s unexpectedly thrust into the role of monarch and must give speeches to the nation during World War II.

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Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech (2010) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Hidden Figures (2016), we follow Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), black female mathematicians working at NASA during the Cold War. They were trying to use their talents to serve a society that was prejudiced against them – not unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, The Imitation Game (2014), who was discriminated against for his homosexuality. By emphasizing their perseverance, filmmakers tell the story of marginalized individuals in a compelling light.

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Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, Taraji P.  Henson as Katherine Johnson, and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures (2016). Photo: Flickr

2. Emotional Outlook/Relationship with Society 

Perhaps the most central element of a biopic is raw emotion. Loss, heartbreak, poverty, abuse, and any kind of hardship can shape the subject’s emotional state and outlook on life, and these feelings resonate with us in some way or another, if depicted in a way that’s just abstract enough for us to relate to, but still precise in the plot of the movie (and in the greater scheme of the subject’s life).

People’s experiences influence the way in which they view and interact with the world, and we can connect to those feelings. A good biopic will manage to encapsulate a real-life public figure’s inner emotions accurately, while sometimes bending the narrative to foster emotional reactions.

3. Overcoming (or Failing to Overcome) Adversity or Discrimination

In The Theory of Everything (2014) there’s a scene in which physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) slowly stands up, despite being paralyzed in a wheelchair. It’s a scene of his own wishful imagining, of course, but the image is so powerful that it moved me to tears.

When biopics stress the subject’s determination to overcome adversity or pain, they hit upon a commonality between all people: we all struggle with something in life. The intensity of struggle in biopics can often test limits, in a way that’s so dramatic that we are compelled to react and feel.

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Mohandas Gandhi, played by Ben Kingsley, in the multiple-Oscar-winning film Gandhi (1982). Photo: The Telegraph

Similarly, in Gandhi (1982), Mohandas Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley, oddly) leads India’s non-violent independence movement after being thrown off a whites-only train car in South Africa in 1893, though he had a first-class ticket. The fight against injustice can carry a biopic and ensure it resonates with human empathy.

How can biopics improve? 

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, British computer scientist and logician who analyzed the Enigma code during World War II, in The Imitation Game (2014). Photo: Flickr

There are a lot of biopics about white men. If we had even more breadth and diversity in commemorating individuals, we could connect to even more people on a more representative level, and celebrate achievements that may be overlooked due to classism, racism, sexism, or inequality in general.

With the emotional threads I’ve outlined above, many biopics admittedly follow a structural formula – but for a good reason. It helps introduce us to people as human beings and forge connections with them on a personal level.