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A Tentative Stylistic Analysis of the Poem I Am Nobody! Who are you?

Topics: Poetry, Linguistics, Literature / Pages: 9 (2139 words) / Published: Feb 22nd, 2014
A Tentative Stylistic Analysis of the Poem I Am Nobody! Who are you?

Course: English Stylistics and Rhetoric
Lecturer: Zhang Xuhong
Credit: 2
Time of Assigned: 28/11/2013
Time of Submission: 19/12/2013
Student Number: 2010010107
Name: Tian Ye
Class: (Grade 2010) Class 1
English Department, Harbin Normal University

A Tentative Stylistic Analysis of the Poem I Am Nobody! Who are you?
Abstract: This essay is intended as a tentative analysis of Emily Dickinson’s poem I Am Nobody! Who are you? mainly from the perspective of literary stylistics. By probing into such stylistic aspects of the poem as punctuation, figure of speech and rhythm and rhyme scheme, we may better understand not only the poem itself but also the poetess’ mentality.
Key words: Stylistic analysis; Nobody; Somebody; initial capitalization; simile; metaphor

1. Introduction

As an integration of linguistics, pragmatics and aesthetics, literary stylistics is generally considered to be related to the evaluation, appreciation and interpretation of literary works. Ina broad sense, literary stylistics may refer to all stylistic schools which analyze literary texts, or those schools which interpret the relationship between linguistic forms and aesthetic effects or thematic meaning. The bridge between linguistics and literary criticism, literary stylistics is meant to deal with the way literary works produce and strengthen thematic meaning and artistic effects by means of specific choice of language, so as to probe into and therefore better understand the literary works’ essence and aesthetic function. According to Halliday, the objective of stylistic analysis is to distinguish the prominent linguistic structures and the common ones. Prominenceischaracterizedbythephenomenonthatcertainstructure- sobviously outnumber others in the text. As it focuses on the stylistic effects produced by linguistic forms, stylistic analysis should be done according to linguistic forms’ function in the text. Generally, there are two steps in stylistic analysis: first describing the patterns of language used in the text, and then explaining why such patterns are adopted.
When reading, we can often get a general impression of the writer’s linguistic style. For example, we tend to perceptually judge that a writer’s writing style is approachable, natural, refined or obscure, etc. Yet when we are doing stylistic analysis, we cannot totally depend on impression. We need to sensibly find out the specific linguistic phenomena and characteristics. Style is formed by certain relatively prevalent or dominant linguistic phenomena and characteristics in the text.
In conclusion, style deals with specific methods the author uses to express his own thoughts, and literary stylistic analysis the way aesthetic effects of literature are produced by means of language. As pointed out by Leech, if we want to conduct a thorough and fruitful analysis on a given text, we have to understand the relevant background, including the author’s life, the cultural and social background and so on.

2. On Emily Dickinson and her Poems

A famously secluded American poetess, Emily Dickinson(1830 ~1886) in a way remains an impalpable mystery in American literary history. Conventionally educated, Dickinson led a simple, quiet and unsociable life since her youth. Apart from one trip to Philadelphia, one trip to Washington D.C., and a few trips into Boston, Dickinson spent almost her entire 56years in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. In the literary history she has been nicknamed as Nun of Amherst, who dedicated herself to composing poems in solitude.
Dickinson 's poems are usually regarded as peculiar, featuring unusually frequent use of dashes instead of commas or periods. Initial capitalization and figure of speech also play an important role in her poems. Influenced by metaphysics, Dickinson’s works are original in form. The poetess often adopted the traditional rhythm and rhyme scheme by British hymn writer Isaac Watts in the 17th century, though she made a lot of alterations. For instance, the novel use of dashes not only enlivens the conventional punctuation but also gives the normal poetic meter a more impressive audio effect. Moreover, Dickinson’s poems are mostly characterized by half rhyme, rather than the traditional strict rhyme scheme. Such innovation in form made her works free from the smooth, meticulous and sophisticated style typical of the poetry during the Victorian Age in the 18th century. Instead, Emily’s poems took on the beauty of roughness, which was painstakingly pursued by a lot of Modernist poets. Furthermore, Dickinson was good at using unique images and comparisons to communicate complicated inner thoughts, far different from Romanticist poets who were inclined to directly and intensely express their opinions and feelings. As for themes, Dickinson’s poems mainly deal with prideful loneliness, death and despair brought by pursuit of religion.
In a word, seclusion shaped Dickinson into a solitary poetess, indifferent to fame and wealth, avoiding the world’s attention. As a hermit, Emily Dickinson spent her life in composing poems so as to construct her own fertile and profound spiritual nest.

3. The Meaning and Stylistic Features of I Am 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 banish us—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell your name—the livelong June
To an admiring Bog!
Taking the form of monologue, the poem conveys the poetess’s wish—to be a hermit sheering off publicity and seeking no fame or wealth. It may be paraphrased as follows:
I am a person who wants to live peacefully. What about you?
Are you the same as me? Then we will be a pair of friends. But don’t speak it out! They will disturb our life—you see. How dull it is to be a somebody living in the noisy society! How pointless it is for those so-called celebrities to catch public attention by showing off all the time!
Most people would consider being the center of attention as fantastic—probably it has something to do with vanity inhuman nature. However, in her poem I am Nobody! Who are you? Emily Dickinson readily admits to being a nobody and in fact she even enjoys it. Unlike most people who try their best to become somebody, Dickinson thinks it would be “dreary” to be somebody. What she sees in being somebody is the dreariness, instead of the notability or fortune. Disapproving of being an ostentatious somebody, the poetess would rather be herself in a self-effacing yet restful way. Being nobody, she does not have to face the scrutiny or disapproval of people who are likely to be jealous of her popularity. She does not have to play games, or put on an act.
Based on the above interpretation, we could see that this poem demonstrates Dickinson’s philosophy, her attitude toward life—in her eye, spiritual contentment definitely outweighs material satisfaction. In this sense, this poem seems to take on an atmosphere of meditation of Buddhism, which disdains the vainness of material wealth and advocates the spiritual nirvana.
Despite her avoidance of publicity and ostentation, the poetess still longs to communicate with congenial souls. Dickinson is amused to meet a fellow nobody, a friend—“Are you—Nobody—too? Then there’s a pair of us! ” Together, the two nobodies could enjoy each other’s company and their shared seclusion. As a pair, they could live a comfortable life in the society of nobodies, and the poetess does not want the peace to be disturbed. That’s why she says,“Don’t tell! They’d banish us, you know.”
In the second stanza, the poetess draws a picture of“Somebody” trying to stay in the limelight. By metaphorically depicting a frog croaking“to an admiring Bog”, she successfully satirizes those who are eager to attract public notice in the noisy society. Dickinson holds that it is much more important and meaningful to have a friend who understands you and accepts you as you are than to be admired by those ignorant and snobbish people in the bustling society.
I am Nobody! Who are you? consists only of two stanzas, though its seemingly simple form never fails to convey its profound content. Accurate and direct wording features largely in this poem. Simplicity is another significant characteristic, both on the lexical and syntactic levels. The language is refined, concise and vivid. As for rhyme and rhythm, the poem also deviates from the conventional scheme. Similarly, the punctuation is very distinctive, with only question marks, exclamation marks and dashes used. All these special traits contribute to the expression of the poetess’s thoughts.
In the poem dashes are unusually and largely used, producing pause and transition both in the flow of emotion and in the poetic rhythm. “Are you—Nobody—too?” may serve as an example. With two striking dashes lengthening the short sentence and slowing down the otherwise hasty rhythm, here the poetess seems to be making a casual dialogue with the reader in a joyful and easy mood. The leisurely tone may make the readers readily sympathize with the poetess’s satisfaction at being a hermit and standing aloof from the worldly affairs. Further more, placed between two dashes,“Nobody” is in a way stressed and hence the theme of the poem is also emphasized. Likewise, in“How dreary—to be—Somebody! How public—like a Frog—”, thanks to the dashes, the easygoing tone and persuasive effect continue, and the poetic foot remains diversified.
Creatively breaking the traditional poetic rhyme and rhythm scheme, this poem is more of a free verse—a natural emotional flow, in which the ingeniously used dashes play a very contributive role. In addition, the question marks serve to make the poem more of a conversation and the exclamation marks go well with the author’s intense feelings.
Another prominent feature typical of the poetess’s writing technique, initial capitalization is also applied in this poem. “Nobody” in the first line, “Somebody” and “Frog” in the fifth line and“Bog” in the last line are all characterized by capitalized initials. Though it appears to be grammatically inappropriate, initial capitalization brings a special stylistic effect. For instance, with their initials stylistically capitalized,“Nobody” and“Somebody” become conspicuous and therefore the relevant meaning behind the words are accentuated—she would rather be“Nobody”, who could enjoy herself in peace, than “Somebody”, who has to face the scrutiny and jealousy of the world.
In the same way, “Frog” and “Bog” function stylistically to stress Dickinson’s disapproval of being “Somebody” and her satire on the frog-like ostentation. The“Frog” croaks in order to catch attention of the“Bog”. Dickinson thinks that even if worshiped by the “Bog”, the croaking “Frog” is still lonely. By means of initial capitalization, the poetess gives prominence to not only the specific words but more importantly the theme of the poet—she would like to be“Nobody”, instead of being“Somebody” like the “Frog” croaking to the admiring “Bog”.
Besides, simile and metaphor are used in the poem as well. The sixth line of the poem “How public—like a Frog—”is an example of simile. “Somebody” is vividly compared to a frog ceaselessly croaking in order to catch attention and acquire admiration. In the last line“To an admiring Bog! ”,“an admiring Bog” metaphorically refers to those who blindly admire and envy celebrities. Dickinson holds that the“admiring Bog” is inhuman, to the“Frog” more of an environment than a companion. In the scene created by the poetess, a frog spends“the livelong June”, which is a metaphorical representation of one’s heyday in life, continuously croaking to get attention and admiration from the lifeless bog, just as those somebodies keep showing off to be noticed and worshiped by their ignorant and soulless followers. Though“admired”, neither the frog nor those somebodies are spiritually sympathized with—they are lonely at the bottom of their hearts. Dickinson disdains such impersonal relationship and estrangement between hearts. She cherishes real friendship and spiritual communication between souls, even if she remains in the society of nobodies. Though she lived by herself during almost her whole life, Dickinson was a passionate poetess. Under her seemingly indifference hid her inner love for nature, family and friends.
To sum up, in this poem, simplicity in form and profundity in content are perfectly matched.

4. Conclusion

Intended to study the stylistic effect produced by linguistic forms, stylistic analysis deals with the interrelation and interaction between different linguistic features, focusing on stylistic patterns formed by recurrent linguistic phenomena. By stylistically analyzing I am Nobody! Who are you?, we could better understand the poem itself as well as the author—Emily Dickinson, the greatest reclusive poetess in American literary history.

[1] Geoffrey N. Leech and Michael H. Short. Style in fiction[M]. Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press,2001.
[2] Mick Short. Exploring the Language of Poems [M] .Plays and Prose. Longman, New York, 1996

References: [1] Geoffrey N. Leech and Michael H. Short. Style in fiction[M]. Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press,2001. [2] Mick Short. Exploring the Language of Poems [M] .Plays and Prose. Longman, New York, 1996 [3]王佐良,丁往道.英语文体学引论[M].北京:外语教学与研究出版社,2002. [4]左金梅.美国文学[M].青岛:海洋大学出版社,2000.

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