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A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’

One of Dickinson’s best-loved short lyrics: an analysis

‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ is one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems, and one of her most celebrated opening lines, and as opening lines go, it’s wonderfully striking and memorable. What follows is the poem, followed by a brief analysis of its meaning and features.

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!

The poem may be summarised very simply as being about how it is actually quite nice to be a Nobody rather than a Somebody – that anonymity is preferable to fame or public recognition. Nobodies can stick together and revel in their anonymity, but it’s more difficult to find companionship and an equal when you’re in the public eye. As the old line has it, it’s lonely at the top. Rather than buy the other old line – that fame and distinction are unequivocally desirable – Dickinson sees anonymity as an advantage. The poet proudly declares her ordinariness, her likeness to everyone else rather than her uniqueness.

As with all Emily Dickinson poems, though, it is not so much what the poem says as how it says it that makes the poem distinct, memorable, and profound. The rhyme scheme is erratic: the two stanzas roughly rhyme abcb, as with most of Dickinson’s poems, but this is unsettled right from the start:

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!

The rhyme of ‘too’ and ‘know’ is only half-rhyme: ‘too’ looks back to ‘you’ (‘Who are you?’) more than it looks forward to ‘know’ (‘know’ itself picks up on the ‘No’ of ‘Nobody’). The use of the longer word ‘advertise’ among shorter, Emily Dickinsonsimpler words draws our attention to that word, and this is deliberate. Nobody draws attention to Nobodies; but to do so would be to attempt to make them conspicuous, to advertise them, and the word advertise (easily the longest word in the stanza) is itself conspicuous in the poem.

The rhyme scheme in the second stanza is more conventional (Frog/Bog), but the imagery is enigmatic. Why is a ‘Somebody’ like a frog? Because it croaks its (self-)importance constantly, to remind its surroundings that it is – indeed – Somebody? Or because there is something slimy and distasteful about people who possess smug self-importance because they are ‘Somebodies’.

Indeed, the clue lies in that opening line, which, if it is read as a response to a question (absent from the poem), makes more sense. But what question? The one that fits the bill is Who do you think you are? or Who the hell are you? Dickinson’s opening line, and the question shot back at the unseen addressee, support such an idea. This would explain the uneasiness of the rhyme scheme in the first stanza: the poem can also be read as satirical. In this reading of the poem, Dickinson’s speaker does not identify with the addressee of the poem, because the addressee – unlike Dickinson herself – is deluded and believes himself to be a Somebody. Dickinson pricks this pomposity and, with faux innocence, pretends to identify with another self-confessed Nobody. Another haughty question, often asked by a supercilious Somebody, is Don’t you know who I am? Dickinson knows she is a Nobody; the problem is that this other person doesn’t realise that he himself is also a Nobody.

Ultimately, Dickinson’s short lyric can be read either as a straightforward celebration of ‘Nobodiness’, of being that overlooked and underrated thing: the face in the crowd. But it also allows for a more cunning satirical reading, whereby the poem is imagined to be a response to a question that has been left out of the poem. The strength of this poem is that it can be analysed either way – often the mark of great poetry.

Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems is well worth getting hold of. We’ve also discussed another of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems, her poem about telling the truth ‘slant’, and we discuss ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ here. Continue your American poetry odyssey with our pick of the best American poems.

For more tips on how analyse poetry, see our post offering advice on the close reading of a poem. If you’re revising for an exam, you might find our post on how to remember anything for an exam useful. Continue to explore American poetry with our analysis of the classic Wallace Stevens poem, ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’.

Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on February 26, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. This is such a lively poem. I was wondering though, why does Dickenson use dashes so often?

  2. Dash it all, Emily, your swift insights into human nature are enigmatically pleasing

  3. Emily, understood well, that celebrity is a contradiction. All those that are really great don’t want celebrity, because celebrity hurts the sensitive feelings of the poet.

  4. I just read this poem an hour ago and here we are with this. What a coincidence :)

    • When I did the MOOC – Modern American Poetry – the close readings of Emily Dickinson were a revelation. If anyone is interested I’d highly recommend the course! Many of hers seemed opaque on first reading – The Brain Is Wider Than The Sky is one of my favourites.

  5. Great analysis of my favorite Emily Dickinson poem!

  6. Reblogged this on Jude's Threshold and commented:
    On dear Emily!

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