Emily Dickinson on Being a Nobody

Sandy Kress and Camille Kress complete their “Summer Celebration of Emily Dickinson” with a look at the great poet’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” What does she mean by a “nobody?” What does she find objectionable about being a “somebody?”  In this very short poem, what is Dickinson teaching us about how and what to be?


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!




With this poem, we must define terms right away.


I don’t for a minute think Emily Dickinson is a Nobody. I have never known of anyone more a “somebody” than this great poet. With the exception of Shakespeare and a few other extraordinary literary figures, she has as much depth of understanding of life and the world (and taught us of it) as anyone who’s written in the English language.


A “nobody” is traditionally considered a person of no importance, influence, or power, that is, a no one. Emily Dickinson is hardly a nobody, as defined; nor does she think anyone who will ultimately find, read, and appreciate this poem is a nobody.


We can get to her real meaning, I think, only by following her clues about the meaning she ascribes to “Somebody,” the opposite of “Nobody.”


“Somebody” is defined as someone who “like a Frog” tells his “name – the livelong June” in “public” to “an admiring Bog!”


We know these somebodies in our own times. As with Dickinson’s “Somebody,” there is nothing to be said about them as to real work of quality, or the difficulty or private pain it takes to do it. There is no mention there of anything truly beautiful that’s been created by them. There is no mention of animus directed their way for having the courage to go it alone, especially in the pursuit of doing the right thing that opposes the popular will.


Rather the “Somebody” she pictures is like a frog doing nothing but croaking his name – and for an entire month – to an admiring crowd.


Wow, did Dickinson write this 150 years ago, or yesterday? Can you picture certain celebrities, “journalists,” politicians, “novelists,” “actors,” donors in “the world of charity,” clergy men and women, and so many other such “Somebodies” in our own time?


It’s the self-worship of the ego she’s decrying, I think. It’s the bloated ego that is all about the ego, not the stuff of living – truth, creation, sacrifice in furtherance of beauty and life, contribution and giving to others.


In religious terms, the question is: do we do what we do for the sake of Heaven or the sake of ourselves? Dickinson says the self-effacing path of the “Nobody” is the one taken for the sake of Heaven.


God bless the memory of Emily Dickinson!




What he said.


Really. I’m not sure I can top Sandy’s excellent analysis here at the end of our Summer Dickinson Festival. But at the risk of being a nobody, I will add some of my own insights, maybe even a few that counter Sandy’s understanding of, not so much the poem, but, of the poet who wrote it.


I, too, don’t think for a minute that Emily Dickinson thought she was a Nobody, but unlike Sandy, I wonder about her self-confidence, especially when it came to revealing her writing to the public. She was thought by some to be a recluse later in life, rarely leaving her parents’ home, and very few of her poems were published in her lifetime. Nearly 1800 were discovered after her death. Although she had close relatonships and shared some of her poems with friends, family and editors, this is hardly a woman who felt comfortable being fully known. I’ve always sensed both wisdom and uncertainty in her.


It would be a mistake, however, to think she did not struggle with the idea of being a Somebody.


It is evident through several of her poems that the subject of fame, for its own sake, was on her mind: “Fame is the one that does not stay;”  “Fame is a fickle food;” and “Fame is a Bee.” She even critizes her profession: “Publication – is the Auction.”


And, yet, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, author of an article that ran in the Atlantic Monthy in 1862, she wrote, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Perhaps she had some concern about what was thought in the Bog.


In the end, I think Dickinson found peace in knowing that the good work we do will endure and make a name for itself.

Emily Dickinson and Luck

In the next-to-last blog of their “Summer Celebration of Emily Dickinson,” Camille and Sandy Kress explore the poet’s extraordinary “Luck is Not Chance.” What is luck? What is the cause of our good fortune? Do we value what truly creates value? These are some of the profound questions Dickinson asks and discusses, thus making them ripe for our consideration.


Luck is not chance—

It’s Toil—

Fortune’s expensive smile

Is earned—

The Father of the Mine

Is that old-fashioned Coin

We spurned—

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Camille Kress –

The fact that the first four lines of this poem appear on posters and refrigerator magnets tells you a lot. We need to be reminded, perhaps daily, that hard work, not luck, brings success.

Bottom line: We make our luck. We earn it. We, not fate, increase the odds.

Something tells me that Emily would not have liked cute refrigerator magnets and predictable posters. On closer look, we see her embed a jarring idea in the first four lines.

She chooses to personify Fortune, by giving her an expensive smile. Given Dickinson’s classical education, she would have known of Fortuna, the Latin goddess of fortune and the personification of luck in Roman religion. The irony here is that the goddess came to represent life’s capriciousness. One never knew if Fortuna was going to bring good or bad luck. Effort had nothing to do with it. Life was left to fate. A whim.

Dickinson cautions against this. Right away, our poet pits human will against chance. She stages a duel: Fortuna vs. Toil. A daily unpredictable fight between Lady Luck and You!

Fear not…Emily tells us how to resist: She wants us to recognize that traces of ancient superstition are still embedded in the modern mind. She abhors the idea that we see our lives as built on capriciousness.

No. You earn it, she says. Toil is not easy. Our future takes work.

The last lines, I’m afraid, remind me of all the times I’ve lost the fight, wasting time blaming circumstances instead of shaping my own goals. But this is the way Emily fights. She provokes through poetry.

“The Father of the Mine

Is that old-fashioned Coin

We spurned—”


Dickinson seems to want us to respect the “Father of the Mine.” But, who is this person? Cherish the Coin, she says – those “old-fashioned” values of daily work that add up to production.

Said another way – the Father is a metaphor for disciplinarian, the one in charge of the Mine, that place (or pronoun: me “mine”) where rich resources are extracted.

In a poem that seems to begin with a simple maxim, Dickinson leaves us with a more challenging task. She makes us ask ourselves: What would it take for me to be the Father, the disciplinarian, of my own life?

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Sandy Kress –

I love this poem!

For one thing, it’s a bit simple, relative to so many others in Dickinson’s oeuvre. Further, it has a wise, proverbial message. But, third, and most important, there’s a touch of complexity in it that prevents us from ever taking the great poet for granted.

We make our “luck,” Dickinson seems to be saying at the start. We work hard at the things that matter. The success of such work is reflected in fortune’s smile. But that smile doesn’t come easily. It’s expensive. By saying so, Dickinson makes clear that she’s not talking about mere toil, but rather a special sort of excellent, productive toil.

Dickinson’s poems are surely illustrative of the toil that earns “fortune’s expensive smile.” I bet you’ve done certain work in your life that makes you particularly proud. Think about the finest thing you have ever created.

I believe Dickinson tells us in the most difficult verse in the poem what essentially is responsible for our best creation.

“The Father of the Mine is that old-fashioned Coin we spurned -“

Who’s the Father of the Mine? The poem suggests it’s the old-fashioned Coin. Well – then – who or what is that? Let’s break it down.

The Coin is capitalized, thus important. It’s old-fashioned, as if to say it’s valued, traditional, of lasting importance. Perhaps the poet wants us to think of an enduring currency of great worth, such as deep principles, ideas of great beauty, or proven values, such as those that push us to do extraordinary work.

Another possible notion of “Coin” is that it represents the reward of work, the material fruit of work, which, in turn, drives us to work.

Whichever of these views we hold, let’s explore how this Coin can be the Father of the Mine.

First, it is what fathers our wellbeing, whether material or otherwise, which is so wonderfully expressed in the use of the word, mine, as in a mine of gold or other substances of great value.

Or, it could be that this Coin is the Father of Mine, in that it is what begets me! It is the father of the true me, the best me, the most productive me. All the things that constitute the old-fashioned Coin – the virtues, the beauty, the push to live in the best ways – are what guide me, as a good father does, to the toil that earns fortune’s expensive smile.

Yet, how often we spurn the Coin.