It’s astonishing, really, that so little is known or understood by science or religion about what comprises individuality.  My daughter and I talk sometimes for hours about what certain behaviors reveal about core personality. All we have are clues. Psychology has hoisted careers, helped some through confusion or pain, and launched its own language. Astrology, too, lures many to study planets for guidance. Mystery perseveres.

This elusive state of affairs is wrestled with in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Nature and God — I neither knew”.   Instead of the frustration some Dickinson poems express over the challenge of self-knowledge, “Of My identity —”, this poem looks at experience and decides to take refuge in the secret itself.

Nature and God — I neither knew

Yet Both so well knew Me

They startled, like Executors

Of My identity —


Yet Neither told — that I could learn —

My secret as secure

As Herschel’s private interest

Or Mercury’s Affair —

If Nature and God “startle” me because, “Both so well knew Me”, there’s an assumption I don’t know myself. As “executors,” rather than creators, oddly, they have been named to carry out the provisions “Of My identity —”

If it is hard to proceed without knowing as much as I’d like about my own purposes, at least neither Nature, nor God told anyone else either: “Yet Neither told — that I could learn —/My secret as secure/As…”. 

Mimicking a search of history to find answers, the poem refers to “…Herschel’s private interest/Or Mercury’s Affair —”. An 18th century astronomer who identified the planet Uranus, William Herschel was the first to realize the solar system is moving through space. His identity changed several times. Born a Jew, he converted to Christianity. He started life as a musician and became a mathematician before taking up astronomy. Mercury the planet is thought to be about communication, including poetry; while mercurial, a changeable and fickle personality. One, say, that doesn’t know itself.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way