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Emily Dickinson

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.