Television

Despite the Twerking and F-Bombs, Dickinson Gets Emily Dickinson Right

The show isn’t entirely accurate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not truthful.

Wiz Khalifa as Death and Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson sitting across from each other in a carriage.
Wiz Khalifa and Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson.
Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s Dickinson, created by Alena Smith and starring Hailee Steinfeld as a rebellious, vivacious, goth version of the famous American poet, is silly, horny, a little sad, and just a shade frightening. It gets a lot wrong, but it gets the most important thing right, because Emily Dickinson’s poetry is also, in quicksilver turns, silly, horny, sad, and frightening. Dickinson’s poems dizzy you and cut you up. They’re illuminating and gutting, virtuosic, strange, painful, utterly original, and surely among the very greatest poetry in the English language. The poems deal in awe; the show is totally awesome. These are closer than you might expect.

Only 10 of Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime; the rest were discovered after her death in 1886, leaving her work in the hands of competing heirs and her legacy in the hands of rival editors. In the decades following Dickinson’s death, she was packaged for readers as a reclusive figure who wrote pretty nature poems. The rise of modernism and close reading in the first half of the 20th century prompted a reconsideration of Dickinson’s poems, but while they were taken more seriously, she wasn’t. In 1956, the literary critic R.P. Blackmur famously wrote, “it sometimes seems as if … a cat came at us speaking English.”

It took the arrival of second-wave feminism for Dickinson’s genius to finally be recognized, arguably first by fellow female poets. Adrienne Rich, drawing on Dickinson’s own imagery in the essay “Vesuvius at Home,” described Dickinson’s poems as volcanic, overwhelming yet hidden, and in My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe reframed Dickinson not as an artistic recluse but as a formidable intellectual. Now there are countless versions of Dickinson: In addition to the reclusive poetess, the inhuman oracle, the feminist hero, and the intellectual luminary, there’s Dickinson the environmentalist, the philosopher, the religious visionary, the theorist of media, and more. Just in the past couple of years, there have been two wildly different Dickinsons on film: Cynthia Nixon’s serious, suffering Dickinson in the movie A Quiet Passion and Molly Shannon’s funny, queer Dickinson in the movie Wild Nights With Emily.

I’m an English professor, and I study, write about, and teach Emily Dickinson’s poetry. And Dickinson’s version of Dickinson is pretty close to my Emily Dickinson: the one I know not through her biography but through her poetry. The show isn’t entirely accurate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not truthful.

Most people won’t care about the way Dickinson tinkers with facts. There’s no evidence that Dickinson ever met her contemporaries Henry David Thoreau or Louisa May Alcott (though her cousins and dear friends would have met Alcott); one character’s death precedes another character’s wedding by three years, not a few months (no spoilers!). The Dickinson family’s maids have been combined into a single character, though it’s true that both were Irish and named Margaret. The stretch of time depicted in the first season seems to be roughly 1850 to 1856, when Dickinson was in her early 20s, but all of the poems that Dickinson writes on the show were actually written about a decade later, most in her great years of 1858–65. (In 1862 or 1863 she must have been writing at the unbelievable rate of a poem a day.) This last point was the only fictionalization that bothered me. The show places Dickinson on the cusp of adulthood as she starts to realize her powers, but she wrote her great poems in her early middle age.

Dickinson gets a lot right. Dickinson and her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, did have a decades-long, sometimes tumultuous relationship that was most likely romantic. (Sue’s daughter, Martha, inherited about half of the poems, and Mabel Loomis Todd, the mistress of Dickinson’s brother and Sue’s husband, got the other half.) The Dickinsons’ house is perfect, and it’s a marvel to see the costuming; I had never quite been able to imagine what it looked like to see people moving in those layers of skirts or what their hair’s complicated updos would look like up close. Dickinson did make an herbarium, she did write on little scraps of paper, and she did sew up her manuscripts into homemade books that scholars call fascicles.

But what I like best is the show’s willingness to be strange and surprising to the point of being nonsensical and displeasing. Its outright anachronisms—some twerking at a house party, lots of contemporary slang, a cool soundtrack—could be seen as making a supposedly stuffy classic palatable in the vein of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or an attempt to translate 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts, for 21st century audiences. But there’s too much of it, and it’s too overt. The willfully modern dialogue and music juxtaposed with the perfect period-specific setting might initially make a contemporary audience comfortable, but its charm grates and it never stops being surprising. The show jolts; its pacing is unpredictable; its timing is odd. It makes you gasp, and then laugh. The show embraces the surreal, sometimes in funny ways and sometimes in creepy ones. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if it was trying to be funny or creepy, and that made it funnier and creepier. These kinds of moments of tonal confusion were those I like best: Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) is hilariously weird and also weirdly cruel; a hallucinated human-size bumblebee is somehow very lovely along with being goofily odd; and Dickinson’s vision of herself as a circus freak balances on a narrow edge between confused fear and confident pride. How should we understand Dickinson’s father, who both abuses her and supports her? And how should we feel about Dickinson when she sees Shakespeare’s Othello as more deserving of dignity than the black man standing before her? Dickinson’s poetry is also full of overlapping and contradictory tones and moments that are difficult to interpret.

Dickinson’s episodes are titled after the first lines of her poems (which are themselves untitled); the first is “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Here’s the poem, written in that incredible outpouring of 1862 or 1863:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

You see where the show got the idea to make this literal, because that’s how Dickinson describes it. It’s a leisurely carriage ride with death personified: He’s a civilized gentleman; she’s wearing skimpy clothing. There’s a whiff of the erotic. And, as in the show, there’s humor, of a sort. That adverb kindly in the second line is the speaker making a little joke, ironic or even sarcastic. They pass children playing “Ring Around the Rosie,” which, of course, ends with everyone pretending to die. The grain is “gazing,” which is a bit of wordplay on grazing, but is also eerie. Both details are simultaneously ominous and silly. And then, at some point, the reader realizes that the joke’s on the speaker, even if the speaker herself doesn’t quite realize it or doesn’t want to. The sun has passed the carriage; the carriage is standing still; it’s “paused” before something that the speaker insists on describing only as a very low house, scarcely more than a “Swelling of the Ground.” Then she repeats herself, stuck on how the “house” is “in the Ground.” Of course, it’s not a house but a grave, and the grave is where she lives now—though she’s no longer alive and so doesn’t live anywhere. She started off with the hope of “Immortality,” but ends facing only the very different, much bleaker infinitude of “Eternity.” Death never speaks, and the speaker, telling herself the story of her own death, is revealed to be unreliable. The steady beat of the willfully casual ballad meter and its rhyme scheme keep tripping up as she faces and denies the truth, like that her flimsy gown is a shroud.

Dickinson’s Death is played by Wiz Khalifa, and his carriage has a fully stocked bar. Emily wears a gorgeous red satin dress and matching lipstick. She’s not dying; they just meet regularly for fun. Or is it? Emily thinks so, and then maybe she doesn’t, like the speaker of the poem. She has maybe misunderstood all of this, she learns. And like with the poem, we readers and viewers, following along with her, also don’t quite know what to think. This premise is absurd. Is this real? What’s its tone? Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Like the grain gazing, it’s both silly and eerie and defies easy categorization. So how are we supposed to respond to this? What kind of story can we tell in order to gain control over this experience? That’s the speaker’s goal, with her insistence on the house in the ground, and also the reader’s, offering an interpretation, and also the viewer’s. But what the poem tells us is that language’s powers of sense-making have limits.

Right now, the show still wants us to like Emily at least a little, and so it manic pixie–fies her. In the first episode, Emily’s mother complains that she dropped a dead mouse in an unwanted suitor’s lap. “Yes. Like a cat,” she replies. “You’re not a cat, Emily,” her mother reminds her, to which she responds, “No, tragically, I am a woman.” Someone’s read Blackmur, because this must be a response—Dickinson is not a cat, she’s a person—but Blackmur was trying to describe the strangeness of Dickinson’s poetry, which his misogyny caused him to classify not as orphic but as inhuman. It’s a different kind of move to transpose Dickinson’s strangeness from her poetry to her behavior toward suitors, and it risks subsuming the poems’ incredible originality into the poet’s own quirkiness. Critics have described Dickinson’s “scenelessness” and her “retreat from … chronology,” so turning Dickinson into a character in a television show—with scenes and chronological narrative—means that we get a Dickinson who’s very human. She’s not a cat. She’s also not an oracle.

But though Dickinson’s Emily is a bit adorkable, she’s thankfully not a dream girl. She has nightmares, and she often is one too. Her daily life also has nightmarish qualities: Loved ones vanish, loved ones die, sexual violence waits just out of sight, and, like every other woman in the show, her well-being is contingent on a man’s unreliable support, which, even when it comes, costs her. How she pays for her work, both practically and emotionally, is the core of the show. This subject comes to the fore in the season’s last few episodes, when Emily is counseled by a hilariously mercenary Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet) and more darkly when her father assaults her after she’s won a poetry contest.

Dickinson’s been renewed for a second season, and I want it to be more audacious. I don’t mean more proclamations about Emily being a great poet or statements about the 19th century’s structural sexism. I want the show to let Emily’s dreams turn scarier and more nonsensical, and her frustrations turn to ugliness and rage. Let it be sharper, in all senses. Let it continue conjuring tones and turns, to say more than we thought it could but gesture toward what can’t be fully understood.

Drop a mouse in our lap, Dickinson.