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Analysis of 'I'm Nobody! Who Are You?' by Emily Dickinson

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson and a Summary of 'I'm Nobody! Who Are You?'

'I'm Nobody! Who Are You?' is one of Emily Dickinson's short poems, being only two stanzas, eight lines, in length. It has the classic hallmarks of a Dickinson poem, namely lots of dashes, unorthodox punctuation and exquisite use of words.

  • The main theme is self-identity and all that goes with it. As individuals, are we content with our identities? What about privacy and inner life? What about our role in society, our public persona?

The first line has become one of the most popular quotes and is often cited as the title of the poem, but in reality, none of Emily Dickinson's poems are titled. She didn't give her poems a title, she simply wrote the lines down.

There are many books written about this most reclusive of poets, who lived most of her adult life in the confines of her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, seeing few people but writing hundreds of poems, only a handful being published during her lifetime.

'I'm Nobody! Who Are You?' is rare in that the first stanza is directly aimed at the reader in a most informal, child-like style. A sort of secret pact is being made, a pact between nobodies; a them and us mindset is being proposed.

At least this is the initial impression the poem gives. The Nobody is a decent thing to be, private and selfless, with no need of recognition from the vulgar mob. Contrast that with the Somebody, a loud, repetitive egotistical thing who sits with other like-minded drearies, craving the worship of the masses.

So there is a rough dialogue of the self going on in this little poem as the poet reaches out to others of a similar disposition, to set up in opposition to those who love to broadcast their own name.

  • As in many of her poems, Emily Dickinson conjures up an unexpected surprise with the use of one little word - frog. She likens the Somebody to a frog, sat croaking all the time in the Bog.

Frogs are one of the creatures that ranked high in the consciousness of the poet, as can be seen in this letter she wrote to her friend Mary Bowles:

'The frogs sing sweet - today - they have such pretty - lazy - times - how nice, to be a Frog!'

So how come she made the frog a major player in her poem? And why use it in a simile? Could it be that the poet associated them with a public yet vulgar display of 'name calling'? After all, the loudest frogs are usually male and they sing to attract a female or declare their territorial boundaries.

'I'm Nobody! Who are you?' (Fr 260)


Stanza by Stanza Analysis

'I'm Nobody! Who Are You?' packs a lot into only two stanzas. With no regular metre to create a steady rhythm, each line is a special case due mainly to the way Emily Dickinson frames the syntax with her use of dashes. Punctuation plays a role too.

  • So it's a stop-start kind of conversational poem where iamb and anapaest combine with tetrameter and trimeter.
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First Stanza

The first line contains a declaration, the speaker boldly claiming that she is a nobody, a nonentity, which is a paradox in itself. How can a nobody end up in a poem, on show for all to see?

The exclamation mark only adds to the puzzle. Is the speaker excited to be a nobody? Or has she shocked herself by revealing that, yes, it's true, she confesses at last. Being a Nobody is preferable to being a Somebody.

And then the extraordinary reaching out to the reader in a child-like playful fashion. The speaker wants a secretive liaison, a private relationship which is a tongue-in-cheek partnership. And it must be kept quiet because if they get to know they'll broadcast it to the whole world! This is a comical take on the world of fame and celebrity.

In an earlier revised version of the poem (Johnson) the fourth line reads:

They'd banish us, you know.

But a later and more accurate published collection by R.W. Franklin in 1998, based on the actual written manuscripts, returns the true fourth line:

Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!

Second Stanza

What makes this poem so powerful is the fact that it resonates with a modern audience today. The cult of celebrity dominates the popular press and media; cultivating the right public persona is everything, the pressure to be a Somebody, a perfect social being, is enormous.

Emily Dickinson chose to contrast her Nobody of the first stanza with a Somebody, a frog, in the second, and used the adjective dreary to describe what it is to be a Somebody.

Frogs go public at mating time when the males gather to find a partner and establish territory, so whilst the action is instinctive it is still, to the speaker, dull and boring and vulgar.

The tone is mocking - to be a Somebody, with a bloated ego, self-important, needing the admiration of the masses, is to be a bit of a loser. Ironically, this Nobody of the first stanza, in cahoots with the reader, is poking fun at the false pretence of those who parade their egos in open view, those who seek fame in a name.

In some respects this poem reflects nothing but the naive thoughts of an introverted child locked up in an adult persona, having to come to terms with the outside world, where the extroverts live.

Being a Nobody is to shun the fifteen minutes of fame, be wary of the negative influence of public opinion, remain humble and not rely on the masses for self-worth.

A good idea?


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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