That Laudatory Name: On Dickinson’s “Fame of Myself, to justify…” (713)

“Fame of Myself, to justify…” (713)
Emily Dickinson

Fame of Myself, to justify,
All other Plaudit be
Superfluous – An Incense
Beyond Necessity –

Fame of Myself to lack – Although
My Name be else Supreme –
This were an Honor honorless –
A futile Diadem –


We noted that when Dickinson brought forth “Nobody” and “Somebody” the issue was not “fame,” but “self-knowledge” (cf. “I”m Nobody! Who are you?”). The seeking of a sort of publicity – the telling of one’s Name to any and all audiences – meant the destruction of self-knowledge.

Now we encounter “Fame of Myself,” which is not simply fame. “To justify” is set off by commas: it is somehow separate from “Fame of Myself,” which could either justify itself or be justified. Either way, “all other plaudit be superfluous:” “plaudit” and “incense” have a sacred yet popular character. Incense is spread liberally during Mass; plaudits are technically applause at the end of a play, but we see “laud” sticking out plainly. “Superfluous” is another link between these terms: heavenly grace by its nature overflows. “An Incense Beyond Necessity” is, then, unclear: it could be the plaudits, but they are superfluous in the strict sense. We are left with a justified/justifying “Fame of Myself” being the “Incense Beyond Necessity.” So far, despite a hint of cynicism about the masses, none of this makes sense: What is “Fame of Myself,” exactly?

We have to pretend “Fame of Myself” is fame simply for a moment. If we do that, then the majority of cases where fame is justified are those where fame is lacked. The second stanza is the first stanza, repeated. It isn’t just the strong parallel between the second lines of each stanza, where plaudit/name, be/be, other/else and all/supreme match, nor the obvious similarity between “an incense superfluous” and “an honor honorless,” despite how stunning the literal repetition is on second glance. The whole poem hinges on “diadem,” from Greek “diadein,” “to bind around.” The necessity has always been there, but we have different ideas about “beyond.”

So what is “Fame of Myself?” It is literal self-esteem – a “plaudit,” “an honor honorless.” It is the dealing with necessity that crowns one; what is ultimately futile bears a marked resemblance to the praise and worship of the most esteemed. The speaker has no power: the justification is the lack, and not because she is God. She is clear that she isn’t: compared to our modern emphasis on self-esteem, this is downright humble. Rather, the philosophic problem is that all justification presupposes a lack: the most just order does not know justice, has no need for it. Her power is continually directed toward an end; she is a public entity even in private. The Name indeed comprehends all.


Leave a Comment