Search This Blog

02 November 2011

Her breast is fit for pearls,

Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a "Diver.”
Her brow is fit for thrones –
But I had not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home—
I—a Sparrow—build there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest.
                                              - F121 (1859) 84

This love poem takes us to three parts of the beloved: her breast, her brow, and her heart. The beloved is a woman and so we think of Dickinson’s passionate and troubled relationship with her once best friend and then sister-in-law, Sue. The poem, however, was sent to Samuel Bowles, a dear friend (often considered to be a man Dickinson loved) and editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper.
            Be that as it may, the poem stands on its own. The first lines treat beauty: the beloved deserves pearls but the poet is unable to obtain them. A diver must plunge into the sea, a veiled sexual image that hints at the problem of same-sex love. Divers must also be physically fit and brave – and skilled. The poet would probably be unsuccessful even if she tried. Diving for pearls is not her strength.
            The second figure is of the brow – the will and character and intelligence. The beloved is worthy to be a ruler, to have courtiers and subjects, to be afforded the homage due a monarch. But the poet is humble, a common person, not part of the nobility, and thus without a crest or coat of arms. Having thus said that she is unable to add to the beloved’s beauty or her regal nature, the poet then turns to what she can offer.
            To do this she turns to the heart, the seat of love and warmth. Here the poet, just a humble “Sparrow,” can make a “Sweet” and “perennial” nest. It’s a very feminine undertaking yet much grander and deeper than offering pearls or a courtier’s allegiance. The last section softens the poem, too. The regal beauty who wears pearls and emblems of nobility is not a particularly warm figure to American readers. But one whose “heart is fit for home” must be essentially a generous and warm woman. And so the little sparrow can build her nest there and come back year after year.
            It’s a nice love poem. There are really two stanzas although it is formatted as one. The first describes what the poet cannot offer, and the second describes what she can. The last line of each of these stanzas ends in a rhyme: “crest” and “nest.” The rhyme is particularly apt as several birds have crests and so the first stanza transitions nicely into the second. The poet has no crest not only because she is not a lord or lady but because she is a simple sparrow rather than a fancier crested bird.


  1. wow. thank you for this beautiful explanation of this poem.

  2. Franklin notes that there are two variants of ‘Her breast is fit for pearls’ (F121). The first (F121A) is in pencil on folded paper, addressed to “Sue”, and signed “Emily”. The tail of the Y extends in a long curving smile under the entire “Emily”. The second variant is in ink and apparently intended for inclusion in a fascicle.

    Franklin infers that Sue sent the penciled Variant A to Samuel Bowles, who kept it along with other ED poems. After ED’s death in 1886, Bowles sent his collection of her poems, including this one, to Mabel Todd for publication. Someone, probably ED’s brother and/or Todd, Austin’s mistress, erased the addressee’s name from the folded paper, a frequent such vandalism of ED’s manuscripts, both poems and letters.

  3. Kristen Comment (2001, Dickinson’s Bawdy) suggests ED meant this poem, ‘Her breast is fit for pearls’ (F121), and the preceding one, ‘As watchers hang upon the east’ (F120) to be companions. ED wrote the poems (Variants A) in pencil on apparently identical sheets of ruled paper, signed “Emilie” (F120) and “Emily” (F121), the second signature with an extremely long upward-curving tail on the Y (A smile? A devil’s tail?), folded each sheet identically, and addressed each to “Sue” on their folded verso sides, all of which suggest ED sent them separately to Susan. Later that summer ED copied the two poems in ink on a single sheet of paper (Variants B) with a line between and bound the sheet into her Fascicle 5.

    Franklin (1998, Variorum) dates both poems “about summer 1859” and infers that after ED died in 1886, Susan gave her copies of ED’s poems to Samuel Bowles, a close friend and editor of the progressive newspaper, Springfield Republican. In 1889 Bowles gave his entire collection of ED’s poems, unmutilated, to Mabel Todd for publication. Between 1889 and 1891, someone carefully erased Sue’s penciled name from the verso side of both Variants A, F120 and F121. The erasures were so carefully done that Johnson (1955) missed seeing them and assumed that ED had sent both poems to Bowles.

  4. About 1891, five years after ED’s death, Susan Dickinson wrote ‘Minstrel of the passing days’, a poem that cryptically comments on her lifelong relationship with ED using a metaphor of Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra, as she saw it: “Strangling vines clasping their Cleopatra”.

    Minstrel of the passing days
    Sing me the song of all the ways
    That snare the soul in the red haze
    Song of the dark glory of the hills
    When dyes are frightened to dull hues
    Of all the gaudy shameless tints
    That fire the passions of the prince
    Strangling vines clasping their Cleopatras
    Closer than Antony's embrace
    Whole rims of haze in pink
    Horizons be as if new worlds hew
    Shaping off our common quest.

    In ‘Her breast is fit for pearls’, ED used the same metaphor for her relationship with Susan but from her own point of view, which was not “Strangling vines”; rather, it was as a failed hero’s devotion to his siren until their deaths. The two of them were intimately familiar with Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, having read the play with Amherst’s “Shakespeare Club” and privately perused the play together.
    ‘Her breast is fit for pearls’ practically announces its metaphorical source when ED in the two opening lines refers to “pearls” and puts “Diver” in caps and quotation marks: “Her breast is fit for pearls, but I was not a "Diver”.

    Act 1, Scene 5, CLEOPATRA’s messenger, ALEXAS, returns from Rome:

    “How goes it with my brave Mark Antony?

    “Last thing he did, dear Queen,
    He kissed—the last of many doubled kisses—
    This orient pearl.

    (ALEXAS gives CLEOPATRA a pearl.)

    “His speech sticks in my heart.”

    Act 2, Scene 5, CLEOPATRA and her handmaid, CHARMIAN, share a bawdy conversation:

    And when good will is showed, though ’t come too short,
    The actor may plead pardon. I’ll none now.
    Give me mine angle. We’ll to th’ river. There,
    My music playing far off, I will betray
    Tawny-finned fishes. My bended hook shall pierce
    Their slimy jaws, and as I draw them up
    I’ll think them every one an Antony
    And say, “Aha! You’re caught.”

    ’Twas merry when
    You wagered on your angling, when your diver
    Did hang a salt fish on his hook, which he
    With fervency drew up.”

  5. ED continues allusions to Antony and Cleopatra with “BROW” and “HOME” [CAPS mine]:

    ACT 1, SCENE 5


    “Broad-fronted Caesar [Julius Caesar] ,
    When thou wast here above the ground, I was
    A morsel for a monarch. And great Pompey
    Would stand and make his eyes grow in my BROW.
    There would he anchor his aspect, and die
    With looking on his life.”

    ACT 1, SCENE 2


    “This is stiff news— [Caesar Augustus] hath with his Parthian force
    Extended Asia: from Euphrates
    His conquering banner shook, from Syria
    To Lydia and to Ionia,


    “Antony,” thou wouldst say.


    O my lord!


    Speak to me HOME. Mince not the general tongue.
    Name Cleopatra as she is called in Rome.”

    At the end of ED's poem, “Her heart is fit for home— / I—a Sparrow—build there / Sweet of twigs and twine / My perennial nest.”, her last three lines and the word “nest” allude to three of Shakespeare’s lines and his word “NESTS”:

    ACT 4, SCENE 12


    “Swallows have built
    In Cleopatra’s sails their NESTS.”

    1. All very interesting, Larry. Thank you for posting your work on this.