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On Praising Singers

The Dickinson Variations

To praise a work of art is not so easy. In season two of Dickinson, Emily tries and fails. She attends the opera for the first time in her life and is struck dead by the beautiful voice of the soprano, Adelaide May. The poet sneaks backstage to praise the singer.

It’s awkward. Emily stands near the door in mute transports; the weary Adelaide (played by Broadway singer Kelli Barrett), has her back turned. Thinking her visitor is the wardrobe girl, Adelaide starts complaining about declarations of love from besotted fans.

Undeterred, Emily pours out these very clichés: you changed my life, you have a gift, your voice is so beautiful, and all the rest. The thing is, she really, really means them. That, as Dickinson knows, is not enough. Adelaide sighs and makes the best of it. But the bottom line is that Emily’s praise falls flat.

Dickinson itself is intended to be an act of praise, as the opera episode’s meta-reflection on life-changing singers clearly telegraphs. Its idol is Emily Dickinson herself. You can’t sneak into the dressing room of a dead poet, but you can try to win your viewers over to your sense of her poems’ beauty and importance. This is what the show wants to do. Beyond bringing 1850s Amherst to life, or narrating what might have given rise to the poems, or making Emily a desiring, striving human being, the show is saying to us, at bottom: isn’t she great? It’s doing all those other things—sometimes too many of them, sometimes at a frenetic pace—so that we will see she is great.

You changed my life, you have a gift, your voice is so beautiful: I would hazard a guess that as to showrunner Alena Smith’s relation to Dickinson, at least some of these platitudes are true. She knows better than to blurt them out. The question is what to do instead.


If Dickinson wants to praise the poet, I don’t want it to fail. But the truth is that some of its efforts are more successful than others. Most of the failures flow from the difficulty of handling two historical settings at once. Dickinson wants us to remember that Emily was horny, confused, ambitious, and in short, human. It tries to get this idea across by insistently relating the vanities of her time with the vanities of ours. Hence the show’s prevailing mode of realist pastiche, in which—to sketch it briefly—the manners and language of an elite east-coast college in the Instagram Era play out in the costumes and setting of 1850s Amherst. As artsy white college girls might be imagined to seek fame and sexual fulfillment, so too do Emily, Lavinia, Sue, and Emily’s mother (also named Emily) seek one or both of these.

As far as making Emily flesh and blood is concerned, I am on board. But the hankering after fame — real as this question may be for Dickinson’s contemporary counterparts — strikes me as a singularly ill-chosen central problem for a poet who obviously did not seek fame in her lifetime, and obviously got it afterwards. The fame plot is hampered by the first fact and loses much of its drama to the second.

It’s also frankly a drag to see the weirdness of poetic ambition flattened into the Quest for Female Empowerment. Much thematic continuity relies on repeating the basic outlines of a scene in which a woman, full of life, lust, and ambition, struggles to rouse some slow-witted man sufficiently to get him to give her what she wants.

These scenes can be funny, and hot. In one of my favorites, Lavinia role-plays The Scarlet Letter with her idiotic lover, Ship. “Time for an English lesson,” she says, breaking out the sexy Puritan costumes. (There’s a knowing wink here; sexy reenactment of supposedly buttoned-up historical periods is also the show’s preferred game.) “Shouldn’t you be more demure?” he says as she pounces on him, white ruffled headband quivering. Lavinia, the better reader, corrects his understanding. “It’s ribald,” she tells him, pronouncing the word carefully so he can add it to his vocabulary.

Most of the men require similarly painstaking pedagogy. “I’ve never had a vision,” Emily’s father says to her, and alas, he speaks for all of them. Bros in plum waistcoats and gray morning coats, they lean back on their heels, almost dozing, and drawl inanities at each other until the time comes to assume their role in “business.” Nothing could be easier than to imagine them passing a bong.

The white men always seem to have it but not deserve it, whether it is sex or power. OK, granted; but what if they don’t have quite all of it? And, more importantly, what if “empowerment” didn’t look like taking power from them and then wielding it in exactly the same form? What if desire followed stranger and more various channels?

Sometimes, as in the always-electric scenes where Emily and Sue face each other, it does. In the first episode, Emily fairly shivers with pleasure when Sue says she was moved by the most recent round of poetic scraps. Emily’s desire to please Sue is the motivation that most compellingly vies with empowerment for centrality to the show’s story. There are signs toward the end of S2E6 that this desire might prevail in the episodes to come: Emily has a vision in which Sue tells her she shouldn’t seek fame, but love. I hope that’s where we’re headed. And I hope the kind of love the show has in mind is as weird as the many kinds the poet’s work considers.

Desire, after all, doesn’t have to mean wielding power, even though Dickinson at one point goes so far as to disagree with its heroine’s poems in order to champion that particular account of female agency. The epiphany of S2E4, “The Daisy Follows Soft the Sun,” is that Emily was wrong to be the daisy; she must claim her rightful position as the sun instead. This is a disappointing reading of a poem whose speaker enjoys the position of supplicant so much that she would rather her imagined lover never came close enough to raise her from her knees.

The empowerment plot can have its worst consequences when the show attempts to incorporate Black abolitionist organizing and writing. In particular, there’s a moment in S2E3 when Emily dares to compare her struggle over whether to seek fame with household servant and abolition organizer Henry’s need to remain anonymous in his publications for fear of retribution.

Instead of treating this question with the contempt it deserves, Henry responds ingenuously, as if he, a character who has supposedly risked his life on correctly titrating publicity and secrecy, had never thought about the matter before. This brief dialogue is an effort at thematic continuity, but even if it’s meant to criticize Emily’s own naivety, it feels cavalier.


Where, then, does Dickinson’s praise of Emily most succeed? It’s in the reveries where Emily is composing her poems. Every episode has at least one, for the composition of its title poem. This is a wonderful conceit, demonstrating the seriousness of Dickinson’s interest in the poems themselves. At these moments, what is forced or tidy about the plot can drop away, and we see—not a historical reconstruction of poetic composition, of course—but a polyphonic song in which the poem, written on the screen in fiery letters, threads amid Smith’s dramatic staging.

The best of these moments comes in the opera episode. Emily, her family, and Sam Bowles all go to see La Traviata in Boston. Wonderfully for a show that wants to wake us up to art, and knows it might fail, Dickinson stages both transports and boredom. Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson hate the opera and giddily play hooky; Ship falls asleep. Sue maintains her poise. Austin tears up. So does Emily.

Dickinson does not make the mistake of asking us to believe in these transports without permitting us to have them, if we can or will. The opera is not merely suggested but really performed, with an orchestra, through much of the first part of act I. Lavinia instructs Ship that you either fall madly in love with opera at first sight, or else, while you might appreciate it, you’ll never truly understands it. This is one of those platitudes that is really, really true—at least, I think so; I am in the former category. I thought this episode was positively glorious.

Emily’s reverie begins when, in the middle of the gorgeous aria “E strano!”, the lead soprano turns into Sue singing “Split the Lark” set to music. The poem is perfectly chosen: not only is it about a singer, which sopranos and poets both are, but it’s about the problem of explanation. In explaining beauty, the poem wants to say, we risk destroying it: “Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas! Now do you doubt that your bird was true?”

Like “Split the Lark,” Dickinson wrestles with the problem of explanation. Praising requires giving an account of what you see in the music, unless you want to bore everyone by prating on about how your life has changed. You need to inquire into the bird—but not skeptically; not in order to reduce the voice to its mechanisms. In its attempt to plot poetic ambition onto the quest for fame, I am not sure that Dickinson always avoids this pitfall. But it recognizes the necessity of doing so; it thinks about how to do so.  That is really something.

And regularly enough, the show brilliantly succeeds at dropping argument and singing paeans to Emily instead. I can’t praise the show more highly than by confessing that I’ve never been much moved by “Split the Lark,” whose worrying over the destructiveness of explanation has always seemed hackneyed to me. But somehow I heard “bulb by bulb, in silver rolled” with new, synaesthetic ears under the influence of this treatment, and I was shocked, as probably I should have been before, at how frankly orgasmic were the floods of music in the second stanza. The tedium of skeptic Thomas dropped away. On me, anyway, the show’s ode succeeded.

Emily Ogden (@ENOgden) is an English professor and the author of Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism.

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