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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.


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