Emily Dickinson’s “I’m a Nobody! Who are you?”

I've just finished reading Emily Dickinson's first 480 poems in Thomas Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and, to say the least, I'm dragging. The sheer number of poems that I do like, no less than 39 so far, and I'd forgotten how many there were, is nothing short of amazing, but in order to find them I had to wade through poem after poem I didn't like, poems that, at times, struck me as overly sentimental, or worse.

Somehow in reading Dickinson's poems I can't help but be reminded of a high school Latin teacher who wore black in mourning for a husband who had died thirty some years earlier, wrote comments in passionate-purple ink, and made us memorize poems in Latin written by Mary "Queen of Scots:"

O Domine Deus speravi in te.
O care mi Jesu nunc libere me!
In dura catena, in misera poena
Desidero te;
Languendo, gemendo et genu flectendo
Adoro, adoro, imploro ut liberes me!

Needless to say, this is not an entirely positive memory. The fact that the poor lady was a "published poet," in the local newspaper as I remember, and wrote sentimental poems for the yearbook, would certainly have dissuaded me from majoring in poetry in college if memories of her class hadn't been purged by a thorough reading of Thomas Hardy's novels and poems my senior year.

Truthfully, it's hard at times not to feel that Dickinson is suffering from a heightened sensitivity that at times borders on manic-depressive. Then, of course, I recall that my favorite modern poet, Roethke was a manic-depressive. And, as Emily herself points out:

Much Madness is divinest Sense --
To a discerning Eye --
Much Sense -- the starkest Madness --
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail --
Assent -- and you are sane --
Demur -- you're straightway dangerous --
And handled with a Chain -
-

It's easy to forget that Emily was a contemporary of Emerson and Thoreau, and though her father apparently censored her reading, it seems unlikely he could have kept her from reading or hearing the ideas of these two. Certainly this poem echoes Thoreau's famous line about marching to the beat of your own drummer, though it shifts the emphasis to the poet's perceptions.

As noted by critics, it's easy to divide Dickinson's poems into significant themes that resonate with me. I'm quite sympathetic to her view of nature, and her views on God are intriguing, too, as they almost seem to form a bridge between the Calvanistic views of her father and the Transcendental views of Emerson and Thoreau.

There was another theme, though, that caught my attention this time through that I haven't seen discussed too widely. For me, this theme centers around poems like:

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!

Nobody, and damn proud of it, too. I ain't no stinkin' A-lister. You? This ambivalence towards fame seems an important theme in Dickinson's poetry. On one hand, she seemed to accept that her poetry would never receive a wide audience, to the point of requesting that her poems be destroyed upon her death. On the other hand, of course, she did write them and preserve them in folios, which makes little sense if you don't want someone to read them. This poem almost seems to suggest that there is something superior in not being famous, in being a "nobody." Of course, her father was "somebody," a state legislator, while Emily went out of her way to avoid people.

How then do we reconcile "I'm Nobody" with:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag today
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break agonized and clear!

Hardly sounds like someone entirely happy with being just another "nobody." Quite the opposite, m'lord.

I wonder if the frustration could somehow be related to:

Over the fence --
Strawberries -- grow --
Over the fence --
I could climb -- if I tried, I know --
Berries are nice!

But -- if I stained my Apron --
God would certainly scold!
Oh, dear, -- I guess if He were a Boy --
He'd -- climb -- if He could!

How does one feel when one's father decides what books you are allowed to read? How does one express that anger? Does one identify Our Father Who Art in Heaven with one's own father, who tries to decide what you will be allowed to believe?

Can we only judge ourselves by others' reactions?

How many Flowers fail in Wood --
Or perish from the Hill --
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful --

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze --
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight --
It bear to Other Eyes --

Did Emily feel she was beautiful but that others failed to notice? Or did the fact that she lived her life as a recluse make her question her own beauty?

We see this same sense of isolation, and resentment, in the more famous:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me --
The simple News that Nature told --
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see --
For love of Her -- Sweet -- countrymen --
Judge tenderly -- of Me

If the World is important enough that you write a letter to it, wouldn't you hope that the "World" would notice you? What is the "simple News that Nature told"With Tender Majesty? At the very least, Nature, unlike the World (of man?), must have delivered some sort of message to the poet.

It seems to me that on one level most poets are "introverts" seeking their own truths, but on another level they seek an audience to affirm their view of the world. Although the act of writing may be a means of self-discovery, that self-discovery is made possible because the author is revealing himself to an "other," to his or her "audience." This tension is an inevitable element of the creative process, an element that Dickinson explores in a depth that even Wallace Stevens might appreciate.

15 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson’s “I’m a Nobody! Who are you?”

  1. Loren, I absolutely abhored Dickenson thanks to the narrow minded tyrant of an English teacher in hi school. She had the gall to label my interpretation of an ED poem as incorrect which was all this math & science bent adolescent needed to invalidate the literary sciences and label ED as an agoraphobic nut with no idea of real life.

    I have since rediscovered my creative side and love of poetry and I thank you for this post to bring out the true beauty of ED’s work and show me what I have been missing these many decades because of a snap categorization of a rebellous teen.

    Your comment to my good friend, Don Ionnone’s blog was what brought me to you wonderful site and I’m adding you to my blogroll for the purely selfish reason to extend my poetry education.

  2. Wasn’t it our man Ted Roethke who defined a poet as “someone who can’t help saying more than one thing at a time”? You certainly catch that tension in ED’s work.

    ED certainly did write reams of conventional, sentimental poetry; but sometimes poetry seems to have taken her by the hair & pulled her out of her conventional practice & into genius.

  3. Interesting take on Emily. But I think you may be bordering territory very close yo psychobabble. After all, couldn’t the poem yopu quote concerning success, victory, and defeat, also be read in a religious way. But you have me thinking (I’ll have to blog my own thoughts later when they’re more complete.) And I have to thank you for that.

    ~Greg

  4. I like that quote Joe, and it would certainly seem to apply to “Success is counted sweetest,” Greg. Part of her Dickinson’s charm is that she interweaves these various themes throughout her poems.

    I certainly feel that there is an ambivalence towards “fame” and totally avoiding people. How much of this you can attribute to her attitude toward her father, I have no idea. But she certainly rebelled against the religious views that he tried to impose on her, both in her life and in her poetry.

    I hope that Shelley and my consideration of Emily Dickinson will get others to look back at her poems. As Steve points out, she may have more appeal for adults than for high school students, which can also be said for many poets.

  5. One of my very favourite Emily Dickinson poems is this:

    We introduce ourselves
    To Planets and to Flowers
    But with ourselves
    Have etiquettes
    Embarrassments
    And awes

    It seems to me that this short but profound lyric goes way beyond any charge of sentimentality, and says much about the poet herself – and, more importantly, about what it means to be human. You can’t really be “introverted”, or indeed “extroverted” either, in relations with the natural world (in macrocosm or in microcosm); it’s just “natural”, for those who feel – hints here of the mystical perhaps, of the Blakeian, certainly of the Transcendentalist. Then, so succinctly and so beautifully, she contrasts, with this universe of rock and plant, the imposed structures, the awkwardnesses, the judgmental qualities of our human relationships. What a wonderful poem, and a masterpiece of brevity.

  6. Hi! I am a student and I chose Emily Dickinson´s poem I´m nobody! Who are you? for my presentation. But I have some problems with it. Could you please send me an analysis of this poem for my presentation? I would really appreciate it.
    Thanks!!!

  7. Cute, Diana, cute ;-)

    After all, I’m sure I retired from teaching just so I could write papers for students who are “having problems” with a poem.

  8. Hi,I come from China, the favorist poem:A Bird Came Down, A bird came down the walk: He did not know I saw;…..,i like free and classic style of Emily,like breeze into my heart

  9. An essay written by Martha Hale Shackford and published in The Atlantic Monthly; January 1913; The Poetry of Emily Dickinson; Volume 11, No. 1; pages 93-97 blew me away. I like birds and was thinking of gathering poems that have to do with birds, so naturally Dickinson’s Hope is the Thing with Feathers came to my mind. While I don’t get or agree with all that Shackford says about ED, I really enjoy the early 20th century voice and find it astoundingly accessible in 2004. I esp. appreciate Shackford’s observation about how Emily hitches her star to a wagon. Shackford has, to my ear, used words to their very best purpose with this portrayal.

  10. As far as I’m concerned,I am no body .who are you.is an excellent poem,which can be interprated in many ways.But oringinally,the author wanted to show us an feeling of loneliness and willingness to be far away from the trifles in the communication with the tedious people.

  11. I liked the “I’m a nobody, who are you?” Probably, because I had to recite it in eighth grade to six classes of mentally challenged kids. At fifteen, it was a little scary, but I did it. Now, I’m 47 and I think about it often. I wonder if what I did in that class helped any of the students. It definitly showed me a few things about mentally challenged kids.

  12. Oh my! I had to laugh at your response to Diana:
    “After all, I’m sure I retired from teaching just so I could write papers for students who are “having problems” with a poem.” Thank you for the unexpected chuckle!

    I teach Senior English at an inner-city high school, only my 3rd year of doing it. Finding a way to motivate & inspire kids who can’t/don’t read is such a challenge. Poetry is one way to do it; I’ve found that seniors really like poems. It’s like writing your secret thoughts in code!

    I just found your blog while googling for a Ray Carver poem. What a nice discovery. I’m having fun reading your thoughts!
    Thanks, Marianne

  13. Hi,Loren,it’s a nice surprise to find here,to see so many comments and poems about Emily Dickinson ^^
    I enjoy them a lot cuase I am a true lover of her…
    Thanks a million and continue to pay attention on ur blog…

  14. Nice Blog! These poems are really great and it helps me widen my views in life.

    I am having fun reading your thoughts. :)

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