Notes on Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (288)

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (288)
Emily Dickinson

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!

Comment:

1. There’s another edition of this poem that renders the last line of the first stanza “Don’t tell! They’d banish us – you know!” It doesn’t require a lot of thought to realize that “banish” implies “nobodies” already have an exclusive club of sorts; “advertise,” when considered with the lower-case “they,” probably means the pair merely recognizing its own existence calls attention and destroys the pair. Now one can try to make things easy and say that “advertise” is how the exclusive club of “nobodies” “banishes.”

But I think we have to reject an easy equivocation of “banish” and “advertise,” and not just because of what “they” did. Dickinson has used “Nobody” and “Somebody,” moving towards the theme of identity. “Fame” is a term not absent from her poetic vocabulary, yet it is not used in this poem. An example of “Fame” at work:

Fame is a bee.
It has a song -
It has a sting -
Ah, too, it has a wing.

The “Frog” alone stands very distinct from the “Bog” when “Somebody” is considered. “The livelong June,” that which is intensely personal, yet a season that is universal and in this case maybe eternal, again pushes me away from thinking that “Nobody” signifies just an exclusive group.

After all, there are exactly two people in the world, according to this poem, who are “Nobody” – the speaker and the audience.

2. I know. This poem looked easy a moment ago. It’s going to get a lot rougher starting now:

  • Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is “No-one” (Gk. “ou-tis,” “ou” being a negation word). This is a pun on Odysseus’ defining characteristic, “guile” (metis, “me” being a negation word although it is just coincidental here). Does wisdom and/or cleverness negate one’s identity? Reason is uncompromisingly universal, it seems.
  • Aristotle tells us early on in the Ethics that honor can’t be the end of human life, because it is largely contingent on what people think of us after death. Shakespeare in the Sonnets plays around with the idea that poetry can make one immortal, as it is traditions/conventions being followed that keep memories alive, but he’s also dealing with an internal audience that has much to learn in terms of moderation.

3. Let’s go back and read this thing. The first thing that jumps out is the exclamation: this begins as a rant. The direct address of the audience in the first line seems to be in anger, but in the second line it reveals itself to be a search for company. “Too” puns all too nicely with “two.”

We’ve spent a good amount of time on “pair” and “advertise,” but not much on “tell” or “know,” which “advertise” sits between. What’s interesting is: “you tell” / “they would advertise” / “you know.” The self is divided in terms of speech and knowledge: something sits between, some sort of consideration of another. Because of this poem’s topic, that “something” is really specific: you don’t speak because you know they would advertise. In other words – they would speak your knowledge, and destroy something about its character.

“Dreary” and “public” correspond in the second stanza, and we note that “Frogs” is a play by Aristophanes, where many of the dead in Hades are represented thus, croaking away to glory. We can croak like crazy in this life if we wish, and get an “admiring Bog.” Something is special about “one’s name” that makes it not just articulate speech, but the most articulate, reasonable speech.

The quick answer to the puzzle is the Delphic oracle, atop which was written “Know thyself.” Self-knowledge presents all sorts of barriers: whether it is even possible is a pretty thorny issue. If you felt you had self-knowledge, though, to whom besides yourself would you disclose it, and why, and how? Here we get an indication of “to whom” and “how” – it would be the truest utterance of your name (“how”), and it would be shared with one you had a reasonable kinship with, perhaps meeting that one through a poem. “Why” requires an explanation of the phrase “livelong June,” and I am afraid we’re out of time for now.

4 Thoughts.

  1. You know just 1 year ago I would have said you were overanalyzing this, but I guess I’ve changed. Maybe it’s actually your fault ;). I like this interpretation, and I think you’re right. I’m gonna do that annoying thing I always do- this poem sort of feels like what you said.

  2. I resent every bit of celebrity culture that gets stuck in my head. Too bad it seems to be a human fascination. The poem indicates that it has always been a problem.
    I enjoyed the poem. I’ve always like Dickinson.

  3. You’re all taking this delightful poem way too far. It’s simply a child’s wish to be seperated from the reality of the adult world
    where everything is banished if it’s fun. Advertise or banish- the meaning was clear to me at age 8 when I first read it. It was in the Golden Book and said banish, but either works for me. I’m simple.
    .-= robert williams´s last blog ..Happy Birthday to The Ghost Singer- Marni Nixon =-.

  4. Purposeful isolation by oneself, or being banished by “an exclusive club of Nobodies”, being alone can emphasize individuality and who you are. But can’t it also tangle that up? Can’t being alone with only your own mind make everything a hundred times less tangible, therefore making it more likely to lose yourself and/or your humanity? Yes, we typically squawk our names and so-called purposes year round for our whole lives, but to some degree, that’s the only thing capable of keeping us sane.
    Even though sanity certainly isn’t my goal..

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