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Emily Dickinson, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (J288; Franklin 260)

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (Franklin 260)
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. The first published version of this poem stands inferior to Franklin’s or Johnson’s versions. There, the last line of the first stanza is rendered “They’d banish us, you know,” which is far too weak for my taste.

“Banish” and “advertise” do not hold the same import, not at all. Dickinson uses “Nobody” and “Somebody” in this poem, demonstrating a consciousness of the problem of identity. “Banish,” for me, speaks less to the construction of identity than “advertise.” It jumps to punishment, to exile, without bothering to address why. Curiously, “advertise” stands distinct, a puzzle all its own. “Fame, ” a term not absent from her poetic vocabulary, is unused in this poem. An example of “Fame,” at work in another of hers:

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

2. There are exactly two people in the world, according to this poem, who are “Nobody:” the speaker and the audience. I hold the speaker is talking to herself:

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!

On the one hand, “Nobody” can be considered a product of a lack of fame and advertising. This is the speaker’s self-perception, precipitated by a particular social condition. She’s not comfortable with publicity of any sort.

On the other hand, something far subtler could be occurring. If one were to genuinely seek self-knowledge, then a dialogue with one’s self must start with adopting the guise of a “Nobody.” This must happen regardless of whether one is famous or not. Who would this “Nobody” investigate? It could be a “Somebody,” a person with a public persona and reputation. But if the investigation into a “Somebody” is successful, then what results is a “Nobody,” a person still unknown to the world.

Of necessity, there must be a pair of Nobodies. This brings the last line of the first stanza into sharp comic and ironic relief: Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know! Why on earth are you worried that you’ll talk about yourself, and this will spread? This is playful; nothing can hurt one’s standing with oneself. At the very same time, something about advertisement stands sinister, threatening to undo a genuine dialogue with the self.

3. Nothing can hurt one’s standing with oneself as long as one does not care for advertising. The problem is being Somebody:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

One does not need to be Somebody. You do not need to be dreary, a frog in a bog, prostituting the truest sense of oneself for the approval of other croakers. To be Nobody or Somebody is a choice, which Dickinson frames a peculiar way. Singsong verse and whimsical lines give this poem a nursery rhyme / fairy tale aesthetic. I have no idea if they had such things in the 1860’s, to be sure.

What I do understand is the problem of giving up one’s name. Here I am, writing a blog, hoping for a reputation of sorts. As I do this, I give up control over my name to those who cannot be trusted with it. Living in the age of social media, we are all aware of this time called “work” which apparently consists in continually posting to the Internet to put other people down over anything and everything.

The threat, as Dickinson’s first stanza attests, has less to do with this “admiring Bog” and more with a failure on our part to see the value of “the livelong June.” To be Nobody in dialogue with Nobody is to understand, truly, that one’s name is what one makes of it. To veer away from that dialogue, to attend to reputation solely, is to not care how one’s name changes with one’s own action or reflection.

Obviously, we are social creatures; we cannot control entirely our own name. At stake in this poem is an ideal. In the best case, our work would remain our own. Our name would be strictly tied to who we are and what we do. It would not involve a reputation which has a life of its own. Thus, “the livelong June:” our name, as a truly changing reflection of ourselves, is an eternal summer. This may be a fairy tale, a childish sentiment. Dickinson will grant us that. She will only ask what price the adult world, where our value is entirely determined by others.

4 Comments

  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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