Gosh darn it, take back that radio mic and Howard Stern slash Anita Dobson wig – Rhyming Couplets just isn’t cut out to be a shock jock. I suddenly feel really mean matching Ed Miliband with Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m a Nobody! Who are you?’
Granted, thinking of the Milibands as the English version of the Kennedys only flags up our shocking lack of glamour, and that Ed isn’t so much John or Bobby as that other brother I can never remember, you know, the one who didn’t get with Marilyn…who was it, yes…Edward! But, that hardly makes him a “nobody”.
It’s just that the consensus in the political press seems to be that Ed has yet to establish his identity with the electorate, and sadly we do live in times when looks and personality determine public opinion. As Jonathan Freedland said in The Guardian, “people don’t believe in ideas, they believe in people who believe in ideas.” And so far people just don’t believe in Ed.
However, in her poem Emily Dickinson sardonically suggests it may be rather coarse or cheap constantly to be proclaiming one’s me-hood to the world – “how dreary”, “how public” she decries to be a “Somebody.” Of course, the comparison doesn’t really hold as a politician – a public servant (allegedly) – really does have to be “public”, but dodging this issue like a guilty MP being grilled by John Humphrys I move swiftly onto the poem.
Emily Dickinson’ poetry was idiosyncratic even at the time she was writing in the 1800s. She did often employ a traditional or recognisable verse form – the ballad stanza, which is a stanza of four lines (quatrains) using tetrameter (four beats) for the first and third lines and trimeter (three beats) for the second and fourth, while rhyming the second and fourth lines (ABCB). For example:
To my quick ear the leaves conferred; The bushes they were bells; I could not find a privacy From Nature’s sentinels.
In this respect ‘I’m a Nobody!’ isn’t exactly representative as firstly it doesn’t fully fit that rhyme scheme (“too” and “know” to me are not even half-rhymes), and then the first quatrain goes: four beats, three beats, three beats, then four, and the second stanza, three beats, three beats, three beats, four. Phew, are you still with me? (I hope I’m not reducing poetry to Vincent Simone teaching Edwina Currie to Cha Cha Cha on Strictly Come Dancing…not that you, my lovely readers, are in any way Edwinas!)
However the poem is typical in its use extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalisation. This highly individual use of punctuation has at times been found unpalatable, and editors of the day even entirely removed dashes to fit with conventional tastes (which seems to be a shocking liberty). It is true that for any reader the unexpected punctuation could provide a barrier of oddity, but it can also actively add meaning, often giving the poems a certain speed, or sense of surprise, or breathless wonder – infact some scholars have even suggested that the differing length and angles of the dashes in the manuscripts have different meanings. In this poem I feel the dashes have the effect of creating a kind of a halting shyness, as though someone who really believes they are a “Nobody” can’t quite believe they are being so bold as to address another person and suggest they might be a “Nobody – too.”
The dashes can give the text almost a look of Morse code – and I’m tempted toward an easy pun with “more like a re-Morse, or even morose, code”, because Dickinson often deals with death in her poems. (Reading her biography this is hardly surprising because you realise just how much early mortality was a fact of life in those times). But, to focus solely on this theme would be to obscure Dickinson’s often droll, sardonic, almost sly humour. Here, the “Frog” is a funny image but it also perfectly conveys just how undignified and ridiculous self-promotion seems to the poet, as if to repeatedly shout your name is like a burping “ribbert”.
And, maybe I can tighten up the comparison with politicians after all: I’ve often thought a few of them look like frogs (John Prescott, Nigel Lawson at his most jowly, the Huffington Post says Turkeys but I say frogs); party conferences often seem to be “admiring Bogs”; and in the case of British politicians no-one will be “advertising” who they are…in the Murdoch Press at least – Bazinga, give me back that shock jock wig after all.
I'm a 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! EMILY DICKINSON