Search This Blog

10 June 2012

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

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!
                                                            F260 (1861)  288

This is one of Dickinson’s most widely read poems – although it is far from her best. She may have been parodying one or more flowery poets of her day, one of whom went on at great length about heaven and earth and kings and winds and how he was nobody, thankfully, rather than “somebody.” Dickinson takes such pap and tells the story plainly.
            For me the best line is “How public – like a Frog – ”; sometimes when I hear someone puffing themselves up I think of the line and I picture the speaker croaking to “an admiring Bog.”
            The poem reflects a bit of Dickinson’s penchant for privacy. She would find it “dreary” to be an important personage. We also see a bit of her playfulness. She begins the poem by addressing some casual companion, but rather than ask for an exchange of names she just goes for the Nobody/Somebody divide. She is delighted to find her companion is, like herself, a “Nobody.” Of course, this is a bit disingenuous. As the daughter of one of Amherst’s most prominent families, Emily Dickinson was far from a nobody.


  1. Hello Susan,

    Is this poem based on Franklin's edition? I think in Johnson's edition the last line of the first stanza is in this way:

    "Don't tell! they'd banish us – you know!"

    Am I right?

  2. I'm using Franklin and, yes, Johnson's version has the 'them' banishing.

    just because it's adorable doesn't mean it's not important
    about being an outsider and meeting a person like you

  4. Why are there different versions? Did Emily originally write "they'd banish us..."?

  5. Did Emily's original version contain "banish" or "advertise"?

    1. Actually, she wrote both. "Advertise" was written as an alternative and then underlined. Perhaps that convinced Franklin that it was preferred over "banish". Here's an archival photo of the poem:

      (sorry this response is late; the site kicked your comment into the Spam folder -- perhaps because of the word "advertise" -- but who knows...

  6. Typo: You meant disingenuous …

    1. Thank you!! It took me a while to correct as I was traveling and couldn't update. This was an important correction!

  7. Johnson’s work metadata (1955) tells us “The Springfield Daily Republican for 23 January 1858 published a poem by Charles Mackay titled "Little Nobody," containing the lines: “Who would be a Somebody? -- Nobody am I”. It is possible that ED's poem owes its inspiration to the earlier verse. Bowles's Republican was the standard newspaper in the Dickinson household.”

    For the record, here is Charles McKay’s poem:


    When the wild wind flies

    O'er the midnight skies,
    And from crag to crag the frantic thunders ride ;

    When the lightning stroke

    Has destroy'd the oak,
    Safely down below, the little violets hide.

    In the strife appalling,

    When the proud are falling,
    Little men can rest, or watch unheeded by.

    Blow, ye storms of Fate,

    On the rich and great,
    I'm but Little Nobody— Nobody am I!”

    ED probably remembered McKay’s last line and composed F260 in late 1861, Franklin’s date based on handwriting.

  8. 1. As Dickinson drifted out to sea [drifted deeper into mental stress] in the winter of 1860–1861, she suffered her usual seasonal (consumptive?) symptoms—a “cough as big as a thimble,” “a Tomahawk in my side.”

    2. [One] sentence recalls Wadsworth’s solicitous concern in his one surviving note to her: “I am very, very anxious to learn more definitely of your trial. . . . I beg you to write me, though it be but a word.”

    3. What made ED’s trouble all the more painful was that Samuel Bowles and Susan Dickinson were caught up in their own crises in 1861 and couldn’t afford the attention and understanding the poet demanded.

    (Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books}

    Bowles’s stress surfaces in a sarcastic note to Austin: “to the Queen Recluse my especial sympathy—that she has “overcome the world.”— Is it really true that they sing “old hundred” …… perpetually, in heaven—ask her; and are dandelions, asphodels, or Maiden’s vows the standard flowers of the ethereal?”

    Further straining the atmosphere, Sue and Austin often left ED off the invitee list for their occasional soirĂ©es for Amherst’s high society and honored guests such as Samuel Bowles. In one case, Bowles attended a fete at Evergreen, spent the night there, and returned home to Springfield before ED learned he had been in town.

    Given this background, it becomes clear why ED’s original wording of ‘I’m Nobody!’ was more direct and informative of her true feelings than her revised version, which disguised or at least softened its original wording. Her original Line 4, “Don't tell! they'd banish us” became “Don't tell! they'd advertise” Likewise, Line 7, “To tell your name” became “To tell one's name”.

    As usual, ED’s poem rises above simple information cleverly expressed: “I’m nobody”.