We went to Rockland Maine last week to connect with Andy and Christina – Pennsylvania artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his Maine muse, Christina Olson. We found Andy at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and both of them at the Olson Farmstead nearby.
We didn’t expect to meet up with Emily.
Emily was a New England poet. When a few of her poems were first published, very few people took notice. But 130 years after her death, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is ranked with Walt Whitman as the most significant American poet of the 19th century.
Walking through downtown Rockland near the Farnsworth Art Museum, we chanced upon the Strand Theater. A sandwich board announced A Quiet Passion, the recent biopic about Emily Dickinson. It seemed proper to view a film about this New Englander while in New England ourselves, so we decided to come back that evening.
We enjoyed the retro theater for its own sake – an old-style ticket booth on the sidewalk, a long snacks counter right inside the door, and a 350-seat theater with balcony, offering both films and live musical productions.
The announcement on the screen to turn off all devices was a hoot, picturing a woman in a theatre seat with a typewriter, an old-fashioned phone, and an oven [no outside food permitted]!
I’d read some of Emily Dickinson’s 19th century verse in a fat anthology of American Literature in high school. I remembered her poem “Hope is the thing with feathers” and several others, but hadn’t thought of her much for decades.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
And sweetest in the Gale is heard
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.
In the film, I identified with young Emily’s struggles to express religious views outside the local norms. I shared her anger at a newspaper editor who altered the punctuation and capitalization in her poems to fit the current conventions, and who changed words to make the meaning less oblique. I found the film hard to watch as Emily became more and more intense and reclusive, as her physical condition deteriorated, and as people important to her inner life kept moving away or dying.
I was astonished to recall that only 12 or so of her thousands of poems were published in her lifetime, altered and usually attributed to “anonymous”.
Later, a quick internet search revealed that when significant numbers of her poems were published in altered form after her death, opinion was mixed, with many critics viewing her as “half-educated” and not really knowing how poetry is to be written. Only in the 20th century did critics begin to see her as ahead of her time, writing a in proto-modern poetic form. Only in 1955 were her poems published unaltered.
Difficult as it was to watch her struggles, I was glad to meet Emily last week….
As for Andy and Christina, stay tuned for a blog post later this summer, after I visit a Wyeth retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art near Philadelphia. Or read Christina Baker Kline’s recent novel, A Piece of the World, a partially fictionalized backstory of Wyeth’s connections with the Olsons, leading to the creation of his most famous painting, Christina’s World.
That novel is what drew me to Rockland in the first place, where I also had the unexpected privilege of connecting with Emily….
Question for Reflection:
What historical figures have you met through films or books or through visiting museums or preserved historical sites? How did such “meetings” inspire you or cause you to think about these persons and their contributions in a new way?
Next week: The Ordinary Splendors of Prince Edward Island