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!

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SANDY KRESS –

 

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!

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CAMILLE KRESS –

 

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.