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Embracing Nobody: 

Unveiling Emily Dickinson's Quiet, Queer Rebellion
By Amy Adshead (they/she)

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One of my favourite poems by Emily Dickinson is 'I'm Nobody! Who are you?' A seemingly simple proclamation that unveils numerous subtleties within the enigmatic life of Emily Dickinson.

Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson remains a spectral figure in literary history. Celebrated for her poetic prowess and mysterious reclusiveness, she spent much of her life in self-imposed seclusion, crafting poetic lines that resonated with the hushed murmurs of her intricate self. Beyond the verses that resonate in quiet corners, Dickinson’s life hints at a narrative intertwined with the complexities of LGBTQ+ identity.

Dickinson’s poems often spoke of individualism and a rejection of societal norms, a sentiment reflected in her own life choices. Uninterested in the traditional roles expected of a woman in her era, she chose to dedicate herself to her art. Her pen became a conduit for rebellion, each stroke challenging the norms that sought to confine her.

Dickinson’s poetry, much like her life, explored the strength found in anonymity. In "I'm Nobody, Who Are You?" she beckons readers to consider the potency of existing beyond the societal gaze. This theme extends beyond the verse, encapsulating Dickinson's existence as she quietly defied the norms of her time. Her refusal to conform and suppressed yearnings contribute to a broader narrative of LGBTQ+ history, where individuals carved out spaces for their authentic selves even in the face of societal repression.

While Emily never publicly acknowledged her LGBTQ+ identity, the intimate letters exchanged with Susan Gilbert Dickinson hint at a relationship that transcended the bounds of mere friendship. Susan, her sister-in-law, became not only a muse but also the recipient of passionate letters that eluded the constraints of societal norms.

In an era of clandestine expressions of love, Dickinson navigated the complicated aspirations she had, leaving behind a trove of letters as a testament to her undisclosed authenticity.

In the sacred space of her letters to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Emily penned, "Yours, always, in the silent language of the heart." In these brief yet profound words, she encapsulated the depth of their connection—an intimacy that dared to exist beyond the boundaries of conventional expressions. The quiet declaration of being "Yours, always" whispered of a love that found solace in secrecy, leaving a lasting mark on the uncharted landscapes of their shared emotions.

As Emily delved into the delicate prose of her letters to Susan, she began to intertwine their relationship with her famous poem, "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" Emily expressed, "In the garden of our shared confidences, the blossoms of emotions unfurl. Do you feel it too, the resonance of something unspoken, a language only the heart comprehends?" These words, written with ink that held the weight of hidden realities, unfolded a narrative of intimacy. In the metaphorical garden of shared secrets, a parallel to the poem's theme of anonymity and the freedom it offered was shown. Just as the poem questioned societal expectations and the masks people wear, their love existed beyond the boundaries of established norms, hidden from prying eyes. Their connection, like the poem, celebrated the beauty of being "nobodies" together, finding solace in their shared understanding, tenderness, and love that dared to bloom in the shadows.

This silent dialogue of the heart, echoed in her poem 'I'm Nobody! Who are you?' becomes a poignant thread connecting Dickinson to the broader tapestry of queer history. The poem, a declaration of nobodyness, mirrors her quiet rebellion against societal expectations. In a society clamoring for recognition, Dickinson found strength in anonymity, a sentiment encapsulated in the lines, 'How dreary to be somebody! / How public, like a Frog— / To tell one's name the livelong June— / To an admiring Bog!'

Emily Dickinson's life, veiled in mystery, serves as a testament to the resilience of the LGBTQ+ community throughout history. In a society that sought to silence and suppress, Dickinson's poems and unorthodox lifestyle choices speak to the subdued rebellion of people who dared to live true to themselves. Through the lens of her "nobody" status, Dickinson emerges as a somebody—a silent trailblazer who, in her own way, contributed to the literary and LGBTQ+ landscapes, enriching the narrative with her unique voice and unconventional influence.

The poem's final sentence vividly contrasts those deemed as "somebody", possessing a public presence and a frog persistently making noise or asserting its presence. This analogy accentuates the stark contrast between expectations of visibility and recognition and the subtle rebellion found in embracing anonymity—a theme intricately interwoven with Dickinson's self-proclaimed "nobody" status.

The same notion she presented in her poem rings true in her own life: an act of defiance against accepted standards of living, is to exist beyond the watchful eyes of society, a quiet yet potent rebellion against the expectations of becoming a "somebody" in the public eye. The comical cycle, likened to a chorus of frogs bellowing their names, becomes a subtle commentary on identity. It suggests that even in the pursuit of individuality, there's a risk of unintentionally contributing to a collective identity — a cycle both amusing and thought-provoking.

For the struggle of individuality and the risks of conforming to societal expectations, just like the frogs, who assert their identities in a chorus, Dickinson sought to distinguish herself, to declare her worth as a poet of great influence and significance. However, Emily also sought solitude as a means to nurture her creativity and find solace in her own thoughts. She retreated from the pressures of her time, choosing instead to live a reclusive life.

In the embrace of solitude, she discovered the freedom to delve into her innermost thoughts and emotions, nurturing an environment where her poetry could flourish. Like the frogs in the metaphor, Emily sought to express her identity and establish her uniqueness in the world of poetry. She desired to stand out as a distinct voice among the collective. However, she also recognised the risk of blindly following what was expected of society and losing her true self in the process. Emily's poems often reflect this tension between seeking status and embracing solitude, as she navigates the complexities of identity and the delicate balance between individuality and conformity.


Emily Dickinson's remarkable journey from a self-proclaimed "nobody" to an acclaimed poet is a testament to her perseverance and introspection. Despite her introverted nature, Dickinson's poetic genius allowed her to transcend societal expectations and leave an indelible mark on literature. Her unconventional lifestyle choices and poetic rebellion were a quiet but powerful expression of her true self.

As reflected in the multifaceted interpretations of the poem, Dickinson's work continues to invite diverse perspectives, affirming its brilliance and enduring relevance. Recognizing the diverse interpretations adds depth to her legacy, emphasizing the poem's ability to resonate with readers across different times and contexts. The richness of her work lies in its adaptability, allowing for a continued exploration of its meanings and contributing to its lasting impact on literature.


Through poetry that defied conventions and letters that whispered of unspoken love, Emily Dickinson invites us to contemplate the power found in anonymity, the strength derived from resisting societal expectations, and the enduring legacy of those who chose to exist authentically, even in the shadows.


Published Online: 2/10/2023

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