In Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” the famous writer muses on the joys of being anonymous, unknown, and private, as opposed to a public persona who must be surrounded by crowds and noise at all times. Dickinson herself was unknown during her lifetime, and was an unpublished poet whose family was not even aware of her brilliant verses until after she died. The above-mentioned poem expresses what was clearly Dickinson’s life credo: it is better to be anonymous than famous, to be a Nobody than a Somebody, yet the structure and content of the poem suggests just the opposite: everything about the poem, including the speaker, is remarkable.
To Dickinson, being famous was not only undesirable, but according to the suggestions in this poem, it is repugnant. She speaks to the readers as if they are Nobodies with her, so that they are in a conspiratorial duet that unites them in their desire to be anonymous. Clearly, it is harder to find close companions when a person is in the public eye. To Dickinson, anonymity has its benefits, and she is essentially paying homage to her being ordinary, boring, her lack of uniqueness rather than being notable. Ironically, the way that Dickinson phrases things in the poem, and even the way she uses punctuation actually define what causes the poem to be so unforgettable and unusual. For example, when she writes “Then there’s a pair of us!” (3) and “Don’t tell! they’d advertise–you know!” (4) her use of exclamation points is dramatic, an animated pronouncement that once again contradicts the idea of her being ordinary and blasé.
Another example of the unusual nature of the poem that appears to contradict her message of wanting to go unnoticed is the unusual rhyme scheme, especially in the first stanza. It is fairly inconsistent, variable, essentially taking the form of bbcb, so that right from the beginning the structure belies the main point of the work because it reveals that Dickinson is far from ordinary.Yet, the content of the first stanza is consistent with the stated intention of the work, that is it is better to stay out of the public limelight, as in “Don’t tell!–they’d advertise, you know” (4) Dickinson wants her partner in ordinariness to make sure that (s)he stays private in order to avoid attracting attention, gossip, whatever type of communication about the two of them might be the result of being noticed. They would become conspicuous by speaking up, and being the focus of so much attention is completely unwanted by the narrator. The word “advertise” is actually the longest word in the stanza, so that it also has the opposite result of Dickinson’s intention to remain unnoticed. This is another ironic aspect of placing that word in that part of the poem, because it stands out, which is the unintentional purpose of the poem’s message.
There is a more traditional rhyme structure in the second stanza, but what characterizes that part of the poem is how critical Dickinson’s words are. “Somebody ‘like a frog'”–who is someone who attracts attention or is famous sounds like a frog, croaking to announce themselves or perhaps to brag about themselves, or at least in any case, to crave the attention of the public. Dickinson clearly has contempt, at least in this work, for people who draw attention to themselves and surround themselves with an “admiring Bog!” (8) She is describing people who are smug, have a sense of entitlement perhaps, and crave the attention of an admiring public. It is more commendable to stay in the background, go unnoticed, and avoid attention rather than being “Dreary” like those who feel the need to answer to an adoring group of fans. The simile of “Somebodies” being like frogs translates into the speaker of the poem equating people who are extroverted or sociable with being creatures who are making perpetual noise, and noise that is actually unpleasant and something to avoid. The use of “croaking” suggests the speaker views those who surround people who are public or celebrities as coming from a swamp, preoccupied with making sure that their names are put out there and kept there.
This very brief poem by Dickinson indicates the content and structure that her stated intention is to be an individual who is not conforming to societal conventions and who wishes to fade into the background and be unnoticed. However, the irony of the poem’s message and form contradicts that stated wish because the way Dickinson uses punctuation, words, and syntax is extremely original and specific to her uniqueness. When she begins by exclaiming that “I’m Nobody!” (1) she expresses just the opposite, i.e. she is a Somebody who has a unique and individual identity which is actually characterized by the lack of a social identity. By presenting herself as humble and avoiding the spotlight, she indicates that her priority is avoiding being narcissistic and self referential.
Dickinson’s expression of saying that she is Nobody is a paradox because in reality, she calls a great deal of attention to herself through that statement. This poem lends itself to endless analysis and speculation about Dickinson’s goal, work, language, literary devices, and accomplishes exactly the opposite of its stated intention. When the speaker joins with the person who is being addressed, it implies that there may be a basis for a connection between them because they are united in their lack of being a Somebody. Of course, the supreme irony of this and all of Emily Dickinson’s work is that she has become one of the most celebrated poets in history, and yet her lack of conceit and wish to remain in the background makes the irony of this poem even more pronounced.