Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems Summary and Analysis
"I'm Nobody! Who are you?"
This poem opens with a literally impossible declaration—that the speaker is “Nobody.” This nobody-ness, however, quickly comes to mean that she is outside of the public sphere; perhaps, here Dickinson is touching on her own failure to become a published poet, and thus the fact that to most of society, she is “Nobody.”
The speaker does not seem bitter about this—instead she asks the reader, playfully, “Who are you?,” and offers us a chance to be in cahoots with her (“Are you – Nobody – Too?”). In the next line, she assumes that the answer to this question is yes, and so unites herself with the reader (“Then there’s a pair of us!”), and her use of exclamation points shows that she is very happy to be a part of this failed couple.
Dickinson then shows how oppressive the crowd of somebodies can be, encouraging the reader to keep this a secret (“Don’t tell!”) because otherwise “they’d advertise,” and the speaker and her reader would lose their ability to stand apart from the crowd.
It then becomes abundantly clear that it is not only preferable to be a “Nobody,” it is “dreary” to be a “Somebody.” These somebodies, these public figures who are so unlike Dickinson, are next compared to frogs, rather pitifully, we can imagine, croaking away to the “admiring Bog.” These public figures do not even attempt to say anything of importance—all they do is “tell one’s name,” that is, their own name, over and over, in an attempt to make themselves seem important.
This “admiring Bog” represents those people who allow the public figures to think they are important, the general masses who lift them up. These masses are not even granted the respect of having a sentient being to represent them. Instead, they are something into which one sinks, which takes all individuality away, and has no opinion to speak of, and certainly not one to be respected.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” is an example of one of Dickinson’s more comical poems, yet the comedy is not simply for pleasure. Rather, it contains a biting satire of the public sphere, both of the public figures who benefit from it, and of the masses who allow them to. Dickinson’s light tone, childish voice, and invitation to the reader to be on her side, however, keep the sharp edge of the satire from cutting too stingingly.
This poem mocks the pretensions of the public world, as it imagines public figures---or perhaps, published writers—as loud bullfrogs. These frogs have nothing of import to say; instead, they advertise their own names, over and over, selling themselves for the purpose of maintaining their fame, but not having any substance behind it. This especially makes it seem like this poem is speaking towards Dickinson’s lack of publication, as even when she did publish, she did so anonymously, avoiding the prospect of telling her name.
The frogs are not the only ones at fault, however. Their audience—closely tied to them through rhyme—is “an admiring Bog,” with all of its members having joined into the whole, losing all individuality or identity. And indeed, this whole is a swamp, something that sucks one in, or sucks in all they are told, but puts forward no opinion or judgment of its own. This audience thus is spared the dreariness of being “somebody,” for they have no identity, but they become worthless, for they are without opinion, and only serve to listen to and support the public figures.
This public sphere is not only unpleasant in itself, but it is also tries to impose itself on those “nobodies,” like the speaker and ostensibly the reader, who do their best to avoid it. The speaker fears that even telling anyone that there is now “a pair of us,” that is, nobodies, outsiders, will lead to their very identities being advertised, and thus taken from them, for they will no longer be able to be the anonymous, free-thinking nobodies that they have chosen to be.
In the world of this poem, then, the public sphere is about advertised or self-advertised identities: people marketing their names and their existence. This marketing becomes the only way for anyone to enter the public sphere. Talent itself is inconsequential, and thus for someone like Dickinson, or, ostensibly, the reader, who desires to think and to perform with meaning, rather than just maintaining their own fame, participation or recognition in this public world is impossible.
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